Magabala is a Broome-based Indigenous publisher. It publishes Bruce Pascoe, the award-winning author of Black Emu (for adults) and Fog a Dox, Seahorse and Mrs Whitlam for children. Magabala’s Greg Dreise’s Mad Magpie has just won the Indigenous category of the national Speech Pathology awards. Deadly D and Justice Jones by David Hartley and Scott Prince is an appealing series which I’ve reviewed for the blog previously and Brenton McKenna’s graphic novels, Ubby’s Underdogs are full of appeal.
And one of the most beautiful picture books I’ve ever seen is published by Magabala – Once There Was a Boy by Dub Leffler.
Big Fella Rain
A suburb new picture book is Big Fella Rain by Beryl Webber. It traces the natural world’s wait for rain in northern Australia. The illustrations by Fern Martins are impressive and one appears above as the feature image for this post. They are lovely, evocative works of art.
Mrs White and the Red Desert
The red cover of Mrs White and the Red Desert by Josie Boyle, illustrated by Maggie Prewett, represents the overshadowing power of the desert sand to explain in an amusing way why the children’s homework is always smudged with red. This is a highlight in Magabala’s list.
On the Way to Nana’s
Red ochre colour also sets the scene of On the Way to Nana’sby Frances and Lindsay Haji-Ali, illustrated by animator David Hardy. This is an accomplished, extremely appealing, tale of travelling to Nana’s house. Things the family see on the way, from flowers to anthills, goannas, brumbies and boabs, are counted backwards from 15 to 1, which is very useful for children who are learning to count. The numbers are shown as numerals and in words. Some of the text is repetitive, “I’m on the way to Nana’s house. What will I see?”
Molly the Pirate
The first picture book from Magabala’s Indigenous Creator Scholarship is Molly the Pirate by Lorraine Teece, illustrated by Paul Seden. Molly lives far from the sea but imagines she is a pirate. Paul Seden takes the challenge modelled by the lively text to create vibrant, gloriously-coloured illustrations. He also does a great job with camera angles, particularly from above and below the hills hoist clothes lines.
Based on the song by Lorrae Coffin, Free Diving looks at the role of Indigenous free divers. It is a poignant insight into history, illustrated by Bronwyn Houston.
At the Zoo I See
At the Beach I See
Two board books for the very young from the new “Young Art” series are At the Zoo I See by Joshua Button and Robyn Wells (the team behind Steve Goes to Carnival) and At the Beach I See by Kamsani Bin Salleh, who uses black linework with wash backgrounds.
Thank you, Joy! And many thanks for having me on the blog.
But first, where are you based and what is your background?
I live in Sydney, with my husband and our three sons, not far from where I grew up as a kid. I initially studied Communications straight out of high school at UTS, where I majored in writing and media theory, before then going on to train as an actor at Theatre Nepean, UWS. Towards the end of my acting training, I taught drama to a group of kids out at Mount Pleasant and I wrote them a play. It was then that it finally dawned on me that I didn’t want to be an actor after all, that in fact I wanted to be a writer but for young people, rather than adults. So not long after, I enrolled in a writing course with the acclaimed children’s author Libby Gleeson. That course felt both like a complete revelation and a homecoming. It was there that I workshopped a picture text I had written on my honeymoon of all places, about a little boy and his ice cream van driving dad. Libby Gleeson was a wonderful teacher and she instinctively knew how to draw out the possibilities of both a writer and a text and because of that early encouragement, here I am sixteen books later.
Do you give many presentations to children? How do you make them interesting? Have there been any particularly memorable responses?
I’ve spoken to thousands of kids over the years, presenting talks and writing workshops. In my general talks, I’ll often share funny stories about my life, what kind of kid I was growing up and especially some of the funny stories about bringing up my boys. There’s lots of acting and hilarity, especially when I share the inspiration behind stories like Sleep Tight, My Honey or My Mum Tarzan. I always bring along some of my writing journals and I usually explore the growth of at least one book in detail, from first seed to final story. I’m keen for kids to hear about the writing process but I’m also especially passionate for them to grasp how curiosity about ordinary moments can lead to the creation of juicy stories.
Funnily enough, some of the loveliest moments happen when I’m not speaking at all, when little clusters of kids sidle up at the end of a session to confide about a book they’ve been writing, or how they’re going to go out and buy their own writing journal that very afternoon, so they can write about the idea they have for a funny story about their own crazy mum, grandpa or dog. Because just as much as I want kids to love my books, at the end of the day, I want to inspire them even more so to discover the beauty and worth of their own stories.
I adore your laugh-out-loud YA novel My Big Birkett (it’s one of my all-time favourites) and love reciting parts about the animals that mate for life, The Tempest and gorgeous Raven and the meals he makes using mince; as well as your wonderful picture books. Could you tell us about some of these books?
Thanks Joy! It makes me especially happy to know that you are a Raven fan!
I’m often asked what I prefer to write most and I always say I love writing both picture books and novels and that I couldn’t choose between them. The best part of writing picture books for me is the absolute thrill of collaboration. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with so many brilliant illustrators over the years and each one has taught me so much about the power of the visual text. Some of my picture books that have been especially well-received include the Bear and Chook books, illustrated by Emma Quay, Gordon’s got a Snookie, illustrated by Wayne Harris and Big Pet Day, illustrated by Gus Gordon, who was also on the QLA shortlist too, for his gorgeous picture book, Somewhere Else. My most recent picture book is Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee! illustrated by Binny Talib. This was such a tough text to illustrate, mainly because of the fairly swift juxtaposition of the scenes of school life, with Ruby Lee’s fervent imagination. I’m just so delighted at what a marvellously beautiful job Binny has done.
I will say that one of the unforeseen joys of my writing life has been the steady, heartfelt emails I have received over the years from teen readers regarding My Big Birkett. These emails about Gemma and Raven and the De Head family have been incredibly sincere and poignant and they have often left me with a huge lump in my throat.
I know this is a tricky question but how do you incorporate humour into your writing?
This is a tricky question! As a kid, I looked into books like they were real windows. The books that spoke to me most were always the ones that captured acutely the laugh-out-loud jumbly nature of life, alongside the bittersweet ache. In terms of writing humour, I always keep an ear out for those little things that will make kids laugh. Not so long ago, my sister told me a story about how her four-year old son crept into her bed in the middle of the night and snuggled up tight to her, saying, ‘I love you so much Mummy, I want to shoot you out of a cannon!’ When I tell that story to kids, they roll around on the floor, laughing their heads off. But at the same time I know they recognise the vehemence of that kind of love, because they’ve felt it rocketing around in their own chests. I think humour has this remarkable capacity to encourage true connection and I’m always keen to incorporate it in my work, because it radically paves the way for readers to engage more fully and tenderly not only with a character’s dreams, fears, hopes and sorrows but also perhaps, with their own.
The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler (A&U) has just won the QLA Griffith University Children’s Book award. The judge report says:
“The Grand Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler is structured as a quintessential Australian beach camping holiday but the exceptional storytelling soars to welcome the reader into both the setting and young Henry Hoobler’s rites of passage. We are given a heart-warming insight into introspective Henry. He is a genius at noticing things, surprising his fellow campers with his success in board and card games. He is also ‘Mr Worst-Case Scenario’, dreading the bugs, stingers and sharks of the beach but, most of all, dreading learning to ride his new silver bike. The bike is a symbol of fear, but its significance changes as Henry discovers courage and freedom. Courage can be found when friends are ‘straight-up and true’, embodied by free-spirit Cassie. This tale reminds us that everyone is different and everyone has gifts. Some, like Henry, prefer to learn quietly but even extroverts can be fearful.
The writing is literary and metaphorical, encompassing a vast emotional range whilst being utterly engaging for children. It is rare to encounter a novel for mid-primary children characterised by such perception and cadence.”
What was your reaction when you realised you had won?
I was astonished and delighted. It took quite a few days for it to truly sink in. Then I was just overcome with immense gratitude that the judges had seen something special in Henry.
It was wonderful to meet your young son, Rohan, at the awards presentation in Brisbane (and others there loved seeing him reading The Hobbit as the night wore on). Why was he there and what was your dual experience of the awards evening?
One of the initial nudges for writing Henry Hoobler was watching Rohie develop as a reader. After a slow start, he had a very sudden and rapid acceleration over a single year and I knew he was in this slippery in-between stage, where the books he was capable of reading were still quite a huge stretch for him emotionally. I began to wonder if I could write something that would speak directly to his life. As I wrote Henry, I read chapter after chapter out loud to Rohie. When I had finished the book and before it had been published, he persuaded his class teacher that I should come to school and read some chapters to his whole class as well. I dedicated the novel to Rohan because I wanted to acknowledge just what an incredible gift it was to have his enthusiastic encouragement along the way.
Rohie is an avid bookworm and so hanging out at the QLA awards ceremony for him was suddenly like meeting all of his people, all at once. He was especially touched that I mentioned him in my speech and I was especially touched when Rebe Taylor, the winner of the QLA History Book Award asked him to sign her copy of Henry. I can safely say that if Rohie’s class teacher had seen that handwriting, he would have been granted his official pen licence on the spot!
What is the significance of the title The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler?
Early in the novel, Henry discovers that his rather unique talent for noticing things, makes him almost unbeatable when it comes to playing cards and board games. After Henry convincingly and unexpectedly smashes all the men and the older boys at games, Patch, his rather begrudging older brother finally acknowledges that Henry might be bit of a grand genius. It’s the beginning of a radical shift in the way Henry sees himself. Although Henry has replayed every worst case scenario in vivid detail regarding his camping holiday, what he has never considered is all the ways this summer might turn out to be the best one yet, the grand, genius summer of all summers.
Could you tell us about your protagonist Henry and some other characters?
Henry is a sensitive, imaginative and thoughtful nine-year old boy. He is the middle child, slotted right in between his athletically gifted, funny, know-it-all fifteen-year old brother Patch and his rambunctious, My Little Pony obsessed younger sister Lulu. Both Henry and his mum share some anxious traits and tend towards self-reflection and to feeling things deeply. Henry is very keen to please his exuberant dad, who is a real enthusiast for life. But Henry is filled with dread at the idea of learning how to ride his new bike without training wheels, especially in front of prickly Reed Barone, another boy who is close to Henry’s age and who is prone to sneering. Eventually, Henry meets ten-year old Cassie, who lives onsite in a caravan with her Pop. Cassie is a free spirit and alive to the world in ways that astonish Henry. Finally, Cassie’s straight up and true courage rubs off and with an unexpected Lulu intervention, Henry learns how to summon up his own courage and to do a whole series of adventurous things that he never imagined.
For what age-group is this novel intended?
Henry is intended for 7-11 year olds. I’ve been really pleased though by the numbers of reviewers that have also recommended it as a read-aloud for the whole family or the school classroom too.
How did you balance fine literary writing with the other elements of the narrative?
I was keen to write in a way that was hospitable to all kinds of middle grade readers, those that were confidently independent and those newly finding their feet. As a result, the story contains lots of snappy dialogue, which helps to give the text an easy, engaging flow. In terms of metaphoric imagery, I kept in mind some feedback given to me around another novel, regarding the importance of restraint. I was conscious that any poetic moment really had to serve the story and forward the action. At the same time, I wanted the novel to contain a certain richness of vocabulary because something the American writer Madeleine L’Engle once said has stayed with me for years, ‘We think because we have words, not the other way around. The more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually.’ So balancing all of these elements was challenging, a little like prancing across a highwire tightrope.
As well as being good fun to read, Henry Hoobler has some important underpinning themes. Could you share some of these?
I’m always a little cautious when discussing themes because I know the writer is sometimes the least insightful person on that subject! With Henry though, I was keen to explore the nature of courage, the way one young boy discovers how to be brave over the summer, by learning how to make a tiny bit of room for the worry in his life, without giving it the whole house. The novel examines the transformative nature of unexpected friendship, the contagiousness of courage, the way we need one another in order to learn how to become brave and the way courage always arrives through the actual taking of considered risks. The novel celebrates the importance of family and community and the value of perseverance, forgiveness and kindness. I was keen to write about the beauty of the natural world and how to recognise and treasure the true significance of small ordinary moments.
Which awards have had particular significance for you?
Whenever a book of mine is either shortlisted or receives an award, I’m always extraordinarily surprised and grateful. I know it’s such a hard job to make those kinds of choices, especially when there are so many equally deserving and beautiful books out in the world. Writing a book does take a significant investment of energy and time and winning an award always means that a book will have a much greater chance of being widely read. I was particularly thrilled in 2010 when Bear and Chook by the Sea won the CBCA’s Book of the Year for Early Childhood, not just because it was a moment I got to share with my good friend the illustrator Emma Quay but also because as a kid, I drew a poster every single year for Oatley Library’s celebrations of the Children’s Book Council’s Book of the Year Awards. I was desperate to win a book prize in that poster competition, never dreaming that I would one day write a book that would win an award from such a long-established and hallowed institution.
What are you writing next?
I’ve been writing a series of picture book texts and I’m just returning now to a novel for teenagers that has been patiently waiting it’s turn.
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
I’ve loved Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible, Karen Foxlee’s A Most Magical Girl, James Rebanks The Shepherd’s Life, Brian Doyle’s collection of essays Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies and the picture books Oi, Frog by Kez Gray and Jim Field and Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros by Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge.
Thanks so much for having me on the blog and for asking such astonishingly good, stretching questions. It was lovely to take the time to reflect and ponder.
Thanks for your very thoughtful and insightful responses, Lisa and all the very best with your excellent novel, The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler, and your other works. We greatly look forward to what your imaginative mind will bring us next.
Imagination – the external source of ideas and creative verve or simply an astonishing faculty for storing all that happens to you and all that you wish could happen to you. Either way, when a picture book encapsulates this wonderful cache of wishes and experiences, the sky is the limit as to what you can do and where you can go. Young children instinctively know this and apparently, so too do gecko-sque styled sketches…
This picture book, the last title by Narelle Oliver, is a kind of mecca to imagination and creation. It epitomises the need to belong, the joy of purpose and the delicate process of turning dreams into magical reality. And it is all done through the eyes and heart of a mere idea…a sketch, but a sketch with a name, Cecil.
The value of mindfulness is not to be underestimated. For reasons of improving one’s stress levels, resilience, empathy, curiosity, decision making skills and self-awareness, practicing mindfulness is beneficial for positive wellbeing and mental health. In his latest book, Ella Saw The Tree, Robert Vescio addresses these themes with thoughtful consideration. Here is a story that joyfully taps into children’s innately inquiring minds. It reminds them that slowing down, focusing on the inner self, and appreciating their environment will offer them surprising discoveries and a sense of calm.
Ella is a free-spirit by nature. She has a keen imagination when it comes to pretend play. But as her mind is constantly brimming with fantasy and busy pursuits, it is the first time she notices the shedding tree in her backyard. A conversation with her mother helps Ella realise the tree’s natural cycle, the beauty of her surroundings, and the power of living in the moment. She becomes attune to her emotions, breathing and senses, finally allowing herself to respect life’s tranquil moments.
Vescio’s elegant and sensatory language is beautifully articulated to connect readers with the aspects of mindfulness highlighted in the story. His words are delicate and carefully chosen, and pleasantly supported by the luscious illustrations by Cheri Hughes. The images emanate a feeling of warmth, soul and attention. Synonymous to the reflective nature of the book, Hughes has chosen to contrast the fluidity of the subtle background watercolours with the prominence of the vivacious character, as well as including varying viewpoints.
Ella Saw The Tree is a warm, entertaining and important story that invites children, and adults alike, to opt in to the skilful technique of being ‘at one with oneself’ and with nature. I love that this book prompts us to celebrate the simplicity, beauty and surprises of life that induce the most happiness.
Read Dimity’s guest post with Robert Vescio from his blog tour.
Although cute and compact, this picture book features the large and lovely antics of Benji, a robust Labrador looking pooch whose insatiable appetite for anything and everything becomes a catalyst of encouragement for one fussy eater.
Our Dog Benji is an animated account of a day in the life of Benji as told by his young owner. Henderson’s duotone illustrations rate highly for their detail, style, and humour illustrating Carter’s understanding of dogs well and their avaricious ways. This handy little book subtly supports the notion of eating well and exploring more food options for fussy eaters.
This little picture book is oozing with charm and the exact sort of intimacy that young readers adore; they are privy to the outcome even if the story’s characters are not. Monsieur Chat is a cuter than cute little ginger puss living among the city roof tops of a French city.
It’s quirky and sweet, exudes fleecy softness yet is eye catching and dare I say, more than a little sheepish, which is all rather fitting for Annabel’s Dance tells the hitherto untold story of a sheep whose unique appearance and delicate constitution sadly alienates her from her mainstream counterparts, aka The Mob.
High on a hill lives not a lonely goatherd, rather Annabel’s flock that are everything you’d expect of a mob of sheep; clean, docile and conforming. Then there is Annabel who is anything but. She is messy and unkempt, erratic and in a constant state of disarray. Her oddball behaviour does nothing to endear her to her fellow sheep who are quick to push her aside and keep her there.
Annabel retains her fraught emotional balance by retreating within herself, repeating the mantra, ‘Hazy mazy oops a daisy, wriggle your ears but don’t go crazy.’ She tries hard to control her exaggerated reactions to every day events and smells and noises but her incessant restlessness offends the others’ sense of correctness so much so that she is shunned even more.
Annabel’s supersensitive responses exacerbate at shearing time thanks to the aggravating noises and sensations so she avoids it, until over many missed shearings, she becomes a prisoner of her own condition…and wool! To her detriment, one day her overgrown mantel trips her up, literally. Farmer Shanks springs to her rescue and resourcefully and caringly helps her to overcome her worst anxieties. This sudden special treatment forces the other sheep to re-evaluate their opinions about Annabel. But will it be enough for them to follow suit?
Hill developed the idea for this picture book in an attempt to understand the behaviours of her granddaughter and the disorders of ADHD and Autism. Whilst doing so, she learned the true life stories of individual sheep found in New Zealand, Tasmania, and Victoria who incredibly escaped annual shearing and have been found with up to 6 years’ growth of wool. Could they by supersensitive too? wondered Hill. And so, Annabel’s Dance was born.
And inspired it is. Hill’s rippling narrative and strong use of visceral vocabulary (wool the colour of ‘whipped cream’, growing in ‘tight crinkles’) is both appealing and entertaining. It conveys Annabel’s plight with sensitivity and respect so that we ache for Annabel but not in a pitiful way.
Bury’s gorgeous illustrations focus largely on Annabel, she is the vivid abstract splat in the mob’s otherwise ordered life, thus in spite of her innate shyness, she stands out, a situation many young readers on the Autism / Asperger’s Spectrum will no doubt recognise and take heart from.
This is a picture book that deserves repeat readings and thanks to its robust thick feel pages and sensible layout, will stand up to them. Annabel’s Dance and all her uncontrollable wriggly jiggly quirks is a beautiful celebration of individuality that encourages readers to embrace and accept the exceptional abilities that hide within us all. You just have to uncover the wool over your eyes to see them!
Baaatastic for 3 – 6 year olds and lovers of woolly jumpers, everywhere.
The old proverb ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ is a mantra often touted but sadly, sometimes forgotten in our instantaneous summarising of a person’s character based on their outward appearance. In spite of our best efforts to ignore the extraordinary and bypass the bizarre, unusual can equate to different which can persuade us to believe it as being wrong which means we are liable to overlook the true beauty of a thing or personality of a person. Here (across two reviews) are two picture books that I believe will help young children see beyond the ‘covers’ of difference and discover a deeper greater understanding of what dwells within.
I first learned of Joseph Merrick aka the Elephant Man in my early teens thanks to the 1980 movie release dramatizing this man’s short life during the late 1800s. I remember with indelible clarity the poignant ending and cruel indignities portrayed so effectively in black and white, but confess I never sought out written information about the man behind the mask. Life moved on as it does, till now.
The picture book, Elephant Man is the first time Merrick’s story has been told with children in mind. Firstly, it blows current 400-words-or-less picture book constraints out of the water. Di Fiore is deliberately unrushed and methodical in her telling of Merrick’s story from the time of his birth, when he looked ‘like any other baby’ to his rapid physical corruption, possibly caused from Proteus syndrome and the disease called neurofibromatosis type 1.
Mid-primary readers will easily handle this account thanks to the inclusion of beseeching dialogue and Merrick’s fictionalised internal thought. There is a satisfying balance of story interwoven with fact and intimate events. By the final ‘reveal’, we have endured the pain and humiliation as Joseph did as well as being heartened by his tremendous sense of self-regard despite his dispiriting existence.
Di Fiore’s compassionate narrative aligns effortlessly with Hodnejeld’s mesmerising illustrations, describing Joseph’s devastating loss of his mother as a wee lad, his alienating deformities, his surrender to life as a spectacle and his eventual salvation by the kind doctor, Frederick Treves.
Hodnefjeld’s artwork is heart stopping. Combining illustration, and photographic montage it gives readers tantalising glimpses into real Victorian London, including the London Hospital where Joseph resided until his death.
This is a true story both confronting and liberating. It is moving and memorable. It bares the worst and best of humanity without sacrificing dignity. Above all, it demonstrates the strength of will, that once uncovered can make love accessible to anyone, no matter whom or what they are – or what they look like.
I read this to my 10 year-old who insisted I complete it in one sitting. I could see the profound effect it had on her from the look on her face as she assimilated something almost unimaginable. She commented repeatedly afterwards on Joseph’s plight, trying to come to grips with the way he was treated, the way he looked and most touchingly, how he must have felt. ‘That poor man…’
‘Gather round – prepare to be amaze! You simply won’t believe it’. Elephant Man is neither gruesome nor frightening, rather simply beautiful and so very very relevant. I entreat you to share it.
You’ve finally found a spot for all those new toys. You’ve organised your post-Christmas reading pile. You’ve dutifully noted your New Year’s resolutions. Time to relax. Well, SURPRISE! There’s more. It’s New Year’s all over again; a time to celebrate, rejoice and welcome new beginnings, this time with the flair of Asia.
Stunning new picture book, New Year Surprise! by award-winning author, Christopher Cheng and fine artist, Di Wu joins the informative raft of entertaining and insightful children’s books depicting the Asian cultural tradition (namely Chinese) of celebrating the Spring Festival.
New Year Surprise! focuses less on the legend of Nian – the original monster who used to terrorise Chinese villagers annually until they learned ways to thwart his evilness and scare him away (with red paper and irritating fireworks). This charming picture book takes place in a traditional rural northern Chinese village where life still follows an ancient and simple route and festivals such as Chinese New Year shape and colour family and community life.
The prospect of the imminent festival excites Little Brother and he craves to be involved with the preparations. His brothers, father, and friends tell him he is too small to be of any use though; he is not strong enough to hold a dragon pole, he cannot reach to hang the lanterns, he has already helped serve tea and light the firecrackers. So what could the ‘special job’ be that his father promises he can do?
Over the week, Little Brother’s relatives arrive and celebrate with sumptuous feasts and Grandfather’s timeless stories. The atmosphere is rich with colour, joy, and positive expectations for a prosperous and lucky year ahead. Yet Little Brother remains at a loss as to his particular role in the festivities. It is not until the climax of the festival, the mesmerising dance of the serpentine dragon, that Father finally reveals Little Brother’s most significant role.
Cheng’s first person narrative places readers firmly within the snug folds of Little Brother’s padded jacket so that rather than feel the chill of his snow-covered home, we sympathise with his frustrated longing to contribute. Cheng infuses just the right amount of Chinese heritage and terminology to establish authenticity without swamping little minds with too much unfamiliar culture, although I wager most people will instantly recognise the Gong Xi Fa Cai! New Year salutation without too much difficulty.
As evocative as the scent of incense wafting on a breeze, Di Wu’s illustrations are painted using traditional Chinese brushes on rice paper and are exquisitely faithful to the traditional colours and textures of Chinese paintings. New Year Surprise! is a merger of art, words, and culture that works as well as dumplings and tea.
As with many National Library publications, the joy of the reading experience extends after the story has ended with explanatory notes on this and on other festivals in China, some familiar, others an exotic new revelation. A marvellous way to embrace and honour a fascinating culture for early primary schoolers and above.
To experience a taste of one of the most significant festivals on the Chinese calendar (normally occurring in February or March) grab yourself a copy of New Year Surprise!, here. This Chinese New Year will be the Year of the Monkey and officially is celebrated on the 8th of February with festivities spanning from the 7th to the 22nd February.
You may already be familiar with Nutmeg, Bay and Saffron but not in a spicy culinary sense. These are of course, the mouseling children of the Woodland Whiskers family who first crept into existence in 2013 when illustrator, Gabriel Evans expanded his creative prowess to pen the Woodland Whiskers series. His illustrating career begun some years before, however at the tender age of 17. With a level of professionalism and artisanship that belies his age, Gabriel is the artistic force behind my Stocking Stuffer Suggestion # 4, The Mice and the Shoemaker.
In this retelling, The Whiskers family tragically find themselves without a home just before Christmas. Grandpa Squeak comes to their rescue, allowing them to board with him under the floorboards of an old shoemaker whose acts of kindness have enriched Grandpa’s life for years. In an act of selfless humility, the Whiskers family decide to repay the shoemaker on Grandpa’s behalf (he’s too wheezy to do it on his own anymore) and in doing so, are rewarded with the best Christmas ever.
With a gentleness that warms the heart more effectively than a cup of eggnog and pop-up illustrations that defy belief, this is a true picture book Christmas keepsake. Luxuriously large page spreads, roomy enough to share with your own cluster of mouselings, depict scenes of glorious measure and infinite detail. Action and spirit abound without a hint of pretention or noise. I think it’s this intentional subtly that I find so alluring. I could not imagine the time and discipline Gabriel invests in his projects, so I invited him to the drafts table to delve deeper into his finely crafted world.
Gabriel is a 24 y/o illustrator creating imaginary worlds through a paintbrush. He’s illustrated over eighteen books. The Mice and the Shoemaker is his third in the Woodland Whiskers’ series.
I’m an illustrator working in a studio full of creative clutter.
I paint in watercolours, gouache, ink, pencil, and any other material I can lay my hands on.
When I’m not drawing pictures I’m growing trees and playing catch with my dog.
Outline your illustrative style. Is it difficult to remain true to this style?
My illustration style changes all the time depending on the project. However, as soon as I start a ‘style’ for a book I find it easy to maintain that look throughout. I normally achieve this by working on all the images collectively.
The Mice and the Shoemaker has a very classic feel to the illustrations and is in fact the first style I taught myself after growing up on the classic illustrators including Arthur Rackham and E. H. Shepard.
This story has a very positive message of offering kindness to others without being asked.
Hopefully it will make children realise that helping others can make for unexpected and positive return.
How does it differ from the books you have illustrated before?
Pop ups! All my previous books have been 2D. But this book has the 3D component of pop-up. Suddenly I’m having to paint three layers for one scene. Then enters the clever paper engineers who compile the layers into a 3D pop up. How they do it I don’t know, but it looks awesome!
Do you enjoy the author / illustrating process better than simply focusing on illustrating someone else’s stories? What excites you most about what you do?
I enjoy both scenarios.
When I write the story I have much more creative control. I write stories from a visual point of view. Normally the picture enters my head before the text does.
Illustrating stories for other authors is equally rewarding. I enjoy the challenge of interpreting an author’s idea.
You artwork is intricate in detail inviting exquisite scrutiny. How does technology influence and or enhance your illustrations?
All my work is created traditionally using watercolours, gouache, inks, and pencils. I love working hands on in my illustrations and haven’t yet found a need to introduce a digital component to my art.
What tip would you give kids eager to embark on a career as an illustrator?
You don’t have to wait until you’ve ‘grown up’ to start your career as an illustrator. Start now. Enter drawing competitions, put your work into school papers, and contribute work to art exhibitions.
What’s on the drawing board for Gabriel?
I’ve recently finished the illustrations for a pirate picture book with Walker Books. The author is Penny Morrison.
Presently I’m mid way through illustrating a picture book for Koala Books.
Just for fun question (there’s always one); if you could be a character in any fairy tale, which one would it be and why?
Umm, I would have to say the Little Pig with the straw house. Sure, it gets blown down by the Big Bad Wolf, but I think this pig was eco friendly and trying to reduce his impact on the environment by building with straw. I don’t think he was considering the slim chance of a grumpy passing wolf with epic lung capacity.
Plus as a pig I’d imagine he’d wallow in mud. I can’t think of a more pleasant way to spend an afternoon!
Me neither, glorious! May any wolves that turn up at your door, Gabriel have sustainable intentions and small lungs. Cheers!
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.
Do you bite off more than you can chew? One’s tendency for this disparity amplifies at Christmas time, at least, mine does. However, it’s not just at the festive table that choice and over-indulgence can be paralysing. The lead-up to my favourite time of the year is where many choke. The solution? Planning. Break needs, wants, and to-dos down into meaningful, chewable mouthfuls, starting with my Stocking Stuffer Suggestion List. Over the next month or so, I’ll continue to add some Kids’ literary suggestions that you can fill your lists with and have plenty of time to organise before Christmas.
SING-A-SONG-OF-SIXPENCE –Sing a long picture books
Flashbacks are curious things. I didn’t feel confident enough to risk the Nutbush but the rush of the wind through my hair as I slid effortlessly albeit awarkedly across a wooden floor so highly polished you’d sworn it was wet, was nothing short of confidence boosting. I am doing this! I am 14 again. I am burning up the roller-skating rink! Turns out, roller-skating is a lot like riding a bike; you don’t really lose the knack as you age, just a bit of grace.
For flashbacks of a more literary sensation, there is plenty to choose from. The offerings are endless and provide buckets of visual and audial stimuli to keep you and your little ones grooving away for hours. Here are some favourites:
Hush Little Possum is a gorgeous adaptation of the classic lullaby, Hush Little Baby. Mama sugar glider and her baby are caught in a sudden outback storm, but brave Mama does everything she can to keep her babe warm and dry. Divine illustrations by WA artist Wendy Binks introduce readers to a myriad of Australian flora and fauna while Deborah Mailman sings along in the accompanying CD. Quite special for three to five year-olds.
Remember Peter Combe? I do. His advice is to, ‘stay in touch with your inner child.’ Well you can with this CD release picture book featuring his favourites in, Juicy Juicy Green Grass and other fun songs. Blindingly bright, bold and bonkers enough to be loved by the very young and old. I like the Silly Postman best, I just do.
You may have spent many long energetic hours swinging, stamping, and shaking your Hokey Pokey in playgroup and kinder sessions – I know I have, but never like this. Join an Australian cast with Sarah Hardy and Colin Buchanan (on CD) as they jump and shake their uniquely Aussie ways through this beloved children’s song (there’s tongue poking and ear flopping aplenty!) High energy and playful cues to get everyone involved and learning. Love this one.
Following a string of popular tune-based picture books, the hilarious Topp Twins, and Jenny Cooper team up again for The Farmer in the Dell. Read, sing, play, live it. These renditions breathe exhilarating new life into beloved old gems. Cooper’s detailed and goofy illustrations capture the verve of each of these classic tunes based on accumulative and comic repetition. Others include, There’s a Hole in my Bucket, Do Your Ears Hang Low and She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain. Oooh, I feel another flashback coming on. High Ho!
Kiwi singer, songwriter, Craig Smith creates laugh out loud songs that translate superbly into fun and funky picture books. Square Eyes is his latest, illustrated by Scott Tulloch. If you thought The Wonky Donkey was full of character and sass, wait until you meet Mr Square Eyes – a panda with a serious addiction to the old goggle box. An excellent, hi-energy comical attempt to discourage kids from doing less by convincing them to do something more.
There are several entertaining remakes of the evergreen song, Ten Green Bottles featuring a billabong of interesting critters designed to get kids counting, moving, and grooving. Well move over silly wombats because here come the 10 Clumsy Emus. Emu fanatic, Wendy Binks illustrates this one with fabulous effect. Laden with astonishing detail, I struggled to find the hidden numbers in every scene, but maybe that’s because I was so hilariously distracted by the emusing (ha ha) antics and expressions of our esteemed friends. No CD needed with this one. Ten out of ten, no less.
P. Crumble and Louis Shea are known for their perennial favourites in the, There was an Old Lady series. The Tortoise and the Hair is a jaw-splitting departure from these and although not based on a song or nursery rhythm but rather a classic fable, it conjured up all sorts of imagery and tenuous connections to the musical, Hair that I just had to include it. Saturated with satire, animal characters and hidden detail with a punchy little twist at the end, tortoise will have you rocking and rolling over and over again.
Lovers of classic nursery rhymes will adore Tony Wilson’s recently released, The Cow Tripped Over the Moon. Cow is beset with a high-flying ambition; to jump over the moon but she is plagued with difficulty. Repeated attempts end in disappointment and near failure until her friends remind her, it’s now or never; she will be remembered forever – if she can just get this right. A left of field reimagining coupled with the strong quirky imagery of Laura Wood, makes this a winner.
Deborah Mailman makes a tantalising reappearance in Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-dot Bikini. If you think little ones might find that a mouthful, just watch them cha cha cha and sing along to this 1960’s classic by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss. A beguiling cast of creatures is perfectly painted by acclaimed illustrator, Kerry Argent including one very brave polka-dot wearing hippo! Suitably capturing all the fun and warmth of a day at the beach.
Without straying too far from the seaside, children’s author extraordinaire, Janeen Brian, takes us through a rhyming underwater odyssey to rival Homer’s adventure with Silly Squid! Poems about the Sea. Along the way, we meet giant squid, clever octopus, lumbering whales, delicate sea stars, adorable seals and so many more sublime sea-creatures, each showcased in sweet rhyming couplets and accompanied by fun facts. Informative, visually enchanting thanks to Cheryll Johns’ luscious full-page illustrations and utterly delightful. Definitely one to treasure.
Italian cartoonist and filmmaker, Rino Alaimo describes himself as a dreamer who never gives up – no matter the odds. It is a mindset many prescribe to, me included and often with devastatingly (one always hopes, at least) great outcomes. Granted, great outcomes can take a while to harness successfully, as The Boy Who Loved the Moon depicts but when they are, watch out! The result is stellar and so is this picture book.
The Boy Who Loved the Moon is the type of picture book that may divide reader opinion. It is daring. It is simple. It is questioning and it is achingly beautiful. It exists because Alaimo adapted his own highly acclaimed short film, The Boy and The Moon and so fits in the same space as The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore, also a result of a remarkable short animation. Readers can view the film thanks to the QR code thoughtfully included in the jacket-sleeve. Much of the film’s integrity and mood is included in this story.
As a picture book, it shines, although ironically, the tale begins in almost total darkness with only a single light illuminating the night sky. The light is ostensibly the Moon, however she represents significantly more; first loves, hopes eternal, ambitions unfettered, all of which emanate a bewitching glow.
Thus, the heart of a lonely boy is captured. He sets out to win her love scouring the deepest seas, defeating the mightiest dragons to secure riches to entice her affections, but she rejects them all.
He is warned by the shadows of an old man, a cautionary conscience perhaps, to desist or otherwise suffer the consequences. However, from deep desperation, fierce determination takes root and the boy engineers a plan. He gives the Moon that which cannot be got and in so doing, finally harnesses her love.
Essentially a metaphor of Alaimo’s proclamation of never giving up on yourself or your dreams, The Boy Who Loved the Moon is laced with spellbinding fantasy. Alaimo’s poetic prose plunges the reader into despair, allowing them to feel the boy’s regrets, heartaches and gutsy tenacity then helps them soar with him to unimaginable heights of ecstasy.
There is only one page of blinding colour in this book. Every other spread is a study of copper and gold, darkness and mystery; the colour of courage that one finds buried deep in one’s heart. It is pure magic.
Young readers may find some of the nuances addressed a little illusive but if read with an adult, they will delight in delving deeper into this beautiful book. Its unique illustrations and dazzling dragons are almost drawcard enough. Reminiscent of the enigmatic wonder of Le Petite Prince, The Boy Who Loved the Moon is a stunning standout classic. Enjoy it for what it is. Love it for is suggests.
Recently I looked at picture books where bedtime procrastination prevails. However what about the times when your child is desperate for sleep but harbours worries too numerous to overcome? Their efforts meet with repeated defeat. New concerns infest their sleep-deprived psyches until they convince themselves they are unable to sleep no matter what.
This perpetuating cycle of anxiety is not only detrimental for children but distressing for parents as well. Here are two new picture books that deal with this dilemma with bright originality.
In Susan Whelan’s and Gwynneth Jones’ debut picture book, Don’t Think About Purple Elephants, Sophie is a bit of a worrier. Her worries don’t intrude much on her life during the day. She draws, plays, and day dreams like most seven-something year-olds. But at night, ‘when everything is quiet and still…Sophie starts to worry’. Oh, I hear you, Sophie!
Of course, most of these worries are merely over exaggerated unreasonable ‘what if’ thoughts but if faced with just brussels sprouts for dinner, you’d be rather toey too, I expect.
Caught in an awful tangle of tortuous thoughts, Sophie is losing sleep and hope faster than she can count to ten sheep. Then, one night before lights out, Mum calmly advises Sophie to NOT think about purple elephants.
Perplexed, Sophie tries to follow her mum’s suggestion and fails, spectacularly. The result is the best night’s sleep Sophie has had in ages. Could this be the start of a coloured animal invasion?
Not thinking about Purple Elephants is an approach to insomnia that I am definitely trying and a picture book I highly recommend for its touching narrative and sumptuous, whimsy-kissed illustrations.
Wendy is a young girl who has explored nearly every avenue to reach slumber including chucking cartwheels on her bed! Frustratingly, nothing works so mum and dad pack her off to Grandpa Walter’s, a place she has never been before. It’s a house of many rooms decorated with the most wondrous wallpapers Wendy’s ever seen. She and teddy are enchanted by their new surroundings. As if by magic, the rose patterned wallpaper smells of…you guessed it, roses and she can handpick oranges from the orchard-decorated room. But it’s when Wendy steps into the room papered with her favourite nursery rhyme charterers that the real fun begins.
She chooses this room as her temporary nocturnal chamber, wondering just how she’ll fit sleep in with so many marvellous distractions on the walls. It’s the fiddle-welding blue cat that leads her on a merry cavort through each landscape and garden and ultimately, into blissful slumber. Jason Hooks’ delightful circular narrative includes enough repeating phrases and quirky character idiosyncrasies to hook young readers and those reading with them.
Lavishly illustrated by Milan based illustrator, Ilaria Demonti, the wallpapers in Grandpa’s house are from real wallpapers, all designed by English artist, Walter Crane (1845 – 1915). Crane’s designs often included pictures from fairy tales and nursery rhymes and featured on many a child’s nursery walls in the 1870’s including those of Mark Twain’s children’s. You can still see these at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, who published this book.
If a trip to the UK is not on your imminent horizon, pick up Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat, here. It’ll cure your insomnia whilst exacerbating your appreciation of fine art.
As one strolls about this wondrous planet, one encounters a variety of individuals who may astound, influence, enrich, or even, deplete you. Not everyone we meet ends up a friend. Life is often an ongoing cycle of trials and consequences. How we survive and interpret the progression of life builds character and shapes us as individuals. Some like Maliyan, the Eagle look, listen, and learn. Others like Wagun, the wombah thigaraa, a silly bird disdain the words of the wise often to their ultimate detriment.
Silly Birds by author illustrator Gregg Dreise, is an indigenous new picture book that focuses on the oft heard yet frequently ignored adage that it is ‘hard to soar like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys’. At once dramatic and charming, this light-hearted yet meaningful narrative fostered from family yarns and a love of sharing (Dreamtime) morals reminds young readers that respect for each other, the environment in which they dwell and above all else, themselves is the true measure of power. Beautifully illustrated by Gregg, Silly Birds evokes the vivid spirit of the Dreamtime, depicting both the soaring majesty of Maliyan and the Elders and the reckless scorn of poor misguided Wagun, the silly turkey, with understated sensitivity.
Gregg Dreise is one of those individuals who fills the room the moment he cracks a smile. Recently, I had the immense pleasure of meeting and learning more about the impassioned creator and educator behind Silly Birds and today share his incredible art and deep respect and admiration for family at the Draft Table.
Who is Gregg Dreise? Describe your writerly / illustrating self. Which role describes you best?
I am proud. I am proud of my family, of where they have come from and where they are heading too. I am proud of my father Rod, a mechanic (I follow in his footprints building old cars all pre 1940s). He taught me that you can do anything that you put your mind too – if you give it a go and practice. I am proud of my mother Lyla, she has always had the gift of storytelling (especially through ballads). I am proud of my relatives; our families have ongoing stories of talented family musicians, artists, dancers, and athletes. I am proud of my brothers, sisters, and brother/sister in-laws. Almost all of us have worked hard to finish university (some even with Masters Degrees and Doctorates). I am proud of my children; they know to listen, learn lots and try their hardest. They are showing great signs of keeping family traditions alive with storytelling and art. They usually help open my book launches with traditional dance. I am proud to be a part of my dad’s family tree originating in Germany. And my mum’s family tree, originating from the Gamilaroi (Grandad / Knox) and Yuwalayaay (Grandma / Simpson) people. I am a proud cancer survivor. I am proud to be a teacher, I love to educate and entertain at the same time. I am an entertainer. Writing, oral storytelling, painting, playing musical instruments…. they all take me (and hopefully my audience) to the days before television and computers. I love to take an opportunity to captivate and teach morals at the same time.
Is Silly Birds your first picture book? How does it make you feel seeing it out on the shelves? What is it that pleases you most about it?
Silly Birds is my first published book. I sent a manuscript off almost ten years prior, it was accepted, and then I got cancer inside my spinal cord. (The diagnosis was 6 months to live, luckily, the recovery was years.) Sadly, that manuscript/contract/and the lady who worked for Scholastic no longer works there. So that book never made it to the shelves. It is so exciting when you see the first ones in shops. I don’t think that excitement has ever wavered. I love the morals. I think my artwork is very unique too.
The inspiration for this story came from your Uncle, Reg Knox. What appealed to you about his story and made you want to celebrate it?
Definitely the morals. When I was younger, I used to listen to and later did a couple of murals and school talks with Uncle Reg. He has always known how to tell a yarn. Sadly, age is catching up to him. Gladly, he has done so much. He is an inspiration. He has artwork in The Vatican, and an award from the Queen. National NAIDOC Elder of the Year, and more. He doesn’t brag about these things, but someone should share this with the world to celebrate. He has an exhibition (Muliyan-Go Reg Knox Retrospective) at the Logan Gallery in November. I hope this helps to bring back great memories that he has lost.
Silly Birds broaches the topics of family relationships, cultural differences, unlikely friendships, and social imbalance. What is the main idea you are trying to share with young readers?
Choose your friends wisely. Friends should be fun, but they shouldn’t change you into someone you never wanted to be. If other friends and family are reaching out trying to help you see what you are missing – look, listen and respect their guidance.
Maliyan endures a rite of passage and a fair bit of internal conflict before he emerges stronger and wiser. He regains the respect of his Elders and the younger, formerly ‘silly birds’ but his friendship with Wagun cannot be saved. Why is it important to show this eventual division of loyalties? Is this a key aspect of Dreamtime stories, to show the differences between right and wrong?
It is definitely an aspect of Dreamtime stories; they don’t ‘all’ live happily ever after. It is an analogy of life; that we don’t always remain friends with all of the people from the past. Sometimes we grow and move on. Wagun only creates the division with his stubbornness. Silliness can develop into maturity, however stubbornness can develop into loneliness.
I love your illustrated traditional line and dot paintings accompanying this story. How do you think this style enhances the integrity of your tale? What sort of symbolism did you infuse?
I really wanted the paintings to have texture to them. Like old paintings. I love it when I see people rub their hands over the cover – like they are going to feel the blobs of paint. (My Miss 9 actually did! Dimity) I knew that the artwork couldn’t be totally traditional. Too much symbolism would confuse my target audience (young children). Therefore, skies and horizons were added, but I kept the earth connected to spirits. Even some smart children have noticed that the Rainbow Spirit in the earth leaves when the billabong is being disrespected.
Had you considered a less traditional style of illustration for this book? Would you ever incorporate other illustrative styles and techniques into subsequent Dreamtime tellings?
The one definite thing I know about these stories is that if I can’t illustrate them, then someone from my tribe should. I wouldn’t publish Dreamtime morality tales with less tradition. I am currently writing a chapter book for upper Primary students, and the illustrations for the edges of the pages are designed like comic books. Keep an eye out for “The Adventures of Captain Wombah” coming out in hopefully the not so distant future. I am also writing an inspirational picture book, about being proud of my culture. I have been working with my niece (an art student) to illustrate that. She does beautiful portraits of young indigenous faces.
We are all surrounded by turkeys from time to time. Are you ever tempted to be one yourself? Do you think Wagun and turkeys like him could ever change, eventually?
Like lots of authors, there are bits of your characters in you. I was once a teenage boy. I was loud, tried to be funny, and looked for an audience. Yes, there are bits of Wagun in me. My next book Kookoo Kookaburra, is all about a story teller that took things too far. I am sure in my attempts to entertain as a teenager, I crossed the line and was very much a turkey. Luckily, I have always tried surround myself with motivated and proud people. As they say “no-one is perfect”. Support, guidance and honesty, can go a long way. I do act wombah (crazy) every time I do a live show!
Silly Birds is a part of hopefully a bird trilogy. Silly Birds 2014; Kookoo Kookaburra 2015; Mad Magpie 2016??? The Adventures of Captain Wombah is almost ready to send to the publishers. I have finished two other picture books that I am in the process of sending off, “Dreamtime Dance” and “My Culture, My Spirit & Me. Plus there is a top secret chapter book for adult fiction slowly coming to life. I am about to record the song/animation for Kookoo Kookaburra – Look out for it on Youtube soon. I would love to find the time to record an album of my own soft rock music. A friend and I are looking to form a band (we both lack time), it has been years since I was out and about gigging. Sometimes I wish there were more hours in the day.
Just for fun question. If you were given a chance to go back and reinvent yourself, what would you change and why?
I would change something that a lot of my family doesn’t have. We have talent, but we don’t have self-promotion. Over the years, I have seen talented people who can’t sell or promote themselves – their talent goes sadly unnoticed. I have also met ‘very’ driven people (with less talent) make it. Please support new talent. Go to a young local art exhibition – Don’t wait for a big name tour. Go see an up and coming band for $10 over a famous one for $500+
When you find a great one – tell everyone you know about it. It just might start a career for someone, before they give up on their dreams.
We’re all familiar with the theme of acceptance and being content with whom and what we are. It’s been relayed a thousand ways, right. But have you ever discovered self-worth with the aid of a carrot? Thelma has.
Aaron Blabey’s dazzling new picture book, Thelma the Unicorn not only deals with this theme in a fresh, clean, pink unicorny way but it has a sparkly front cover to boot; guaranteeing extra eye-appeal.
Thelma is a little ordinary pony who yearns for loftier heights. She dreams of being a prancing, pampered unicorn, the sort that never goes unnoticed. She believes this will elevate her into special-dom.
Her best mate, Otis tries to convince her otherwise. ‘You’re perfect as you are,’ he insists. But Thelma isn’t having a bar of it. When she spots a carrot on the ground, ideas of grandeur and transformation take serious hold and after a truck incident involving pink paint and glitter, she reinvents herself as, Thelma the Unicorn.
A shimmering star is born as she sashays before a world that quickly becomes obsessed with her glamour. Intoxicated with her newfound fame, Thelma laps up the attention.
However, with great recognition often comes diminished privacy as Thelma soon discovers. Adoration rapidly turns into possession and Thelma’s life just as wildly slides out of her control. Until that is when one night she can no longer stand the isolation of fame and makes yet another life-altering decision.
I truly love Blabey’s rendition of this tried and tested theme. The lilting rhyming text lopes along at a much more satisfying pace than Pig the Pug did for me (apologies to any Pug fanatics). It is a real pleasure to read.
I have always been a fan of Blabey’s bulbous-eyed human depictions as well, but really enjoyed the simple, long-lashed beauty of Thelma and Otis, who sit harmoniously alongside his quirky human character illustrations.
Tongue in cheek humour pops up regularly in the text and illustrations throughout Thelma’s foray into fame-dom, which helps to point out to young readers that all things that glitter are not necessarily that attractive in the long run and it’s okay being who you are even without a horn stuck on your head. Thelma the Unicorn is the perfect kind of ‘special’ to share with three-year-olds and above.
It is wise to start a new year on a positive note. Many begin with a resolution. A new book excites me. But how do you choose the perfect title that will not only entertain and enthral but also convince you to pick up another, again and again? Best to begin with a tale of intrigue, mystery, and devil-may-care with a convincing love story involving passion and redemption. Happily, I found such a (picture book) tale so began the New Year with Ralfy the Rabbit!
Ralfy has a touch of OCD. He likes making lists and is a bit of an over-sharer all because he harbours a passion that runs deeper than a need for carrots. Ralfy loves books. In fact, he can’t get enough of them.
And, as some obsessions are wont to become, Ralfy’s soon evolves into one of criminal dimensions. Ralfy can’t stop taking other people’s books in order to satisfy his need to read.
It appears Ralfy’s bibliophilic book thief existence is unstoppable until he meets Arthur, who also loves books and becomes more than a little agitated by the loss of his favourite title. Unable to curb his lust for books, Ralfy is finally nabbed by PC Puddle. At first, Arthur rejoices but then sympathises with the bookworm in Ralfy.
MacKenzie’s bouncy picture book text and adorable crayon/watercolour illustrations give wonderful insight into the heart and soul of would-be criminal, Ralfy. Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, demonstrates to young readers how two very different people can find unity because of a shared common passion and, in this case, become best (book) buddies.
I love how Wanted!… ultimately celebrates books and unashamedly encourages reading at every level, on almost every page. One can’t help but giggle at Ralfy’s’ expansive To Read, Read and Favourites Lists which include some time honoured literary masterpieces such as: A Hutch with a View, Warren Peas and The Hoppit.
Two young children and their mother embark on a regular train ride into the city, which is where ordinary stops. All at once, their imaginations assume an Animalia magnitude with Mary Poppins possibilities as they meander through their day, stopping to admire, savour and marvel. I expect mother is on some sort of mission but this is happily forgotten as she joins her young wards in their jolly.
They are shadowed on every page by bunnies who surreptitiously guide them through fantastical locations and situations where ‘the fish fly through the sky’ and the world is ‘without edges’.
This is a picture book that takes little time to read yet entices you back for a closer look, challenging you to take another journey and seek out a different story. In the same vein as the wordless picture books of Shaun Tan, Imagine a City promotes out-of-the-box thinking, a sense of discovery and more than a touch of soul searching in readers of all ages.
Creatures of every description are featured in this whimsical world where the past is indefinable and readily defies magic. Hurst’s spare narrative and colourless crosshatch pen and ink illustrations submerse you in fathomless detail and textures that will leave you breathless and wondering.
I recently shared this book with an older special needs reader who positively radiated from the notion that reality is simply the combined images of our own experiences and aspirations and therefore unique and different to each of us. But of course, imagination is not restricted to the imaginative alone and neither should this picture book. Imagine a City is an enriching exploration of dreams and possibilities that will mean something profoundly unique to each reader, each time they lose themselves in it.
Hold on to your marshmallows because new girls on the block, Tottie and Dot, have invited us all to their megatabulous Blog Blast party. Today with the help of co-hosts, Tania McCartney and Tina Snerling, we celebrate the explosive launch of picture book, Tottie and Dot. And what a feast for the senses it is.
Tottie and Dot live side by side at numbers 36 and 38, in a retro-chic, bubble gum coloured world. Beneath skies of teal blue, they share a harmonious aqua and cerise hued friendship of marshmallow tea and apricot sandwiches, ‘side by side’. Even their pet pussycats frolic in neighbourly tranquillity.
Their slightly stepford-wives existence seems almost too peaceful to be perfect, although I stress this is more a reference to their spectacular domiciliary set up. There is nothing submissive or docile about these two bright characters. However, social calm is suddenly thrust into the spotlight of competition when Tottie has a radical change of heart and paints her house mauve.
Her benign act of home improvement sets off a chain of competitive one-up-man-ship attempts between her and Dot, until what begins as subtle rivalry between two friends escalates into riotous mayhem. Each is determined not to be outdone by the other.
Dishevelled and in disarray, Tottie and Dot collapse amongst the mess of their jealously realising that there is much more at stake than art deco garden ornaments and strings of butterflies. Their treasured friendship is on the line.
Tottie and Dot is the latest picture book deliciousness doled up by Tania McCartney and Tina Snerling. As with their previous bestseller, An Aussie Year, Tottie and Dot effortlessly teams McCartney’s delectable dream-like story line with Snerling’s candy-luscious illustrations. Sweetly simple statements are anchored on full double page spreads with divinely drawn detail, right down to the tiny-tarred paw prints and gumball pebbled paths.
Kids aged four and above will get a real sherbet flavoured blast from this picture book. It’s extreme in colour and action yet beneath the sugar coating, the idea that friendship is all-important fizzes away satisfyingly. Treat yourself to it soon.
You might as well know my weakness. It’s ice cream. Any flavour, most kinds, regardless of country of origin. I am extremely ice cream tolerant and I wonder if Bob Graham had similar thoughts when he penned his latest picture book masterpiece, Vanilla Icecream.
Vanilla Icecream is an eloquently articulated tale about a young curious sparrow whose world revolves around a dusty truck stop in the heart of India. He enjoys his existence and relishes his freedom with the blithe objectivity of all wild things until one day his pluck and appetite hook up with fate, which escorts him south across rough seas and through dark nights, eventually delivering him ‘into a bright new day’.
Unperturbed by his new environment in a different land, the truck stop sparrow chances upon a new eating hole and Edie Irvine, a toddler whose young life is inextricably changed forever because of him.
Graham’s dramatic narration of the little sparrow’s epic journey stuns you with its beautiful brevity and makes you want to follow the courageous new immigrant and know if Edie’s and his paths will ever cross again. This is a largely self-indulgent desire on my part as I get quite caught up in Graham’s snapshots of life, wanting them to never end. Nonetheless, end they must and this one’s delicious denouement is as immeasurably satisfying as a bowl of vanilla ice cream.
There are numerous wordless pages in this picture book as Graham shapes much of the narration visually with his splendid, slightly sassy, culturally sensitive illustrations. Graham has the unique, unaffected knack of suffusing modern day nuances with old-fashioned appeal into his pictures that draw the eye of young and old alike deep into the story in spite of the apparent simplicity on shown on the page.
This story allowed me to sift through memories, mostly glorious of my own ‘firsts’ and it reminded me of my daughter’s wonderment when discovering her first time, life-changing tastes, notions, and realisations. What Vanilla Icecream evokes in you depends entirely on your own memories and attitude towards new people and new experiences, and your fondness for ice cream of course. However, you will be hard pressed to find a better way to introduce the complex ideals of human rights, fate, and immigration to young ones where a lightness of touch is more readily comprehended than harsh dry facts. As Amnesty International UK proclaims through its endorsement of Vanilla Icecream;
‘…we should all enjoy life, freedom, and safety. These are some of our human rights.’
Vanilla Icecream is quite simply a stunning picture book. Quiet and unassuming in its appearance. Complex and multi-layered enough to warrant spirited discussion with 3 to 103 year olds.
Fans of Lear’s will relish the lilting musical quality of Hosking’s verse as she transports us as effortlessly as Julia Donaldson through the Australian outback with as an incongruous couple as the Owl and Pussycat; Croc and Platypus.
Hosking is spot on with this ingenious retelling of a childhood classic however, somehow makes it feel much more loose and flowing and bizarrely, even easier to read than the original. Her narrative sings with a down-to-earth gritty realism but is delivered with Lear’s same congenial, nonsensical joie de vive. Hub caps ring and didgeridoos blow as Platypus and Croc ‘play up a hullabaloo…baloo.’
I love Hosking’s incorporation of recognisable Aussie icons; Uluru, tea and damper and lamingtons to name a few as Croc and Platypus trundle across the plains eventually camping under the Southern Cross after cleverly procuring their tent. For those not so familiar with ‘click go the shears’ terminology, there’s even a neat little glossary.
Extra applause must go to Marjorie Crosby-Fairall for her truly epic acrylic and pencilled illustrations. The outback is vast and engulfing as are the illustrations of this picture book with gorgeously generous helpings of full colour, movement and sparkle on every single page.
Hosking’s appreciation of, commitment to and finesse with the rhyming word are self-evident. She works them all to perfection in this richly Aussie-flavoured celebration about embracing unlikely friendships and sharing stellar moments with those closest to you whilst enjoying a good old Aussie road trip.
From beneath a mountain of brightly coloured picture books all screaming for review, I spied the oddly unassuming cover of The Duck and the Darklings. Odd because apart from Peterboy’s candle-hat, this was one sombre looking picture book. Even the title sounded desolate, quirky. Surely though something fantastical had to be dwelling between those black covers because this was the new creation of two of Australia’s most revered story tellers, Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King.
The Duck and the Darklings is less of a blasé five minute read and more of a whimsical journey of despair, discovery, renewal and hope. It opens bleakly in the land of Dark and is about a small child named, Peterboy and his Grandpa, who share everything. Their home, though ‘built with care and lit with love’ is not a joy-filled place and is populated by others who depressingly are trapped by their own decayed memories.
But buried deep within Grandpa are ‘scraps of wonderfulness’ and ‘symphonies of stories’ past; tinder that Peterboy hopes to ignite and so rekindle the fire in his Grandfather’s eyes. He searches the ‘finding fields’ for something to make Grandpa’s inner light burn bright again but instead finds a wounded duck and takes her home.
Grandpa reluctantly repairs Idaduck and fosters a ‘forbidden fondness’ for her. But, just as Grandpa warned, it isn’t long before Idaduck gets the urge to be gone on the wind.
Peterboy is determined to make Idaduck’s departure memorable and enlists the Darkling children and Grandpa to help him light Idaduck’s way. It is a farewell and dawn that will never be ‘disremembered’ in the land of Dark.
This picture book sent tremors through nearly every one of my heartstrings. As I navigated my way through Peterboy’s and Idaduck’s story for the first time, it felt that Glenda Millard was deliberately tailoring each piece of prose for Stephen Michael King to work his illustrative genius on. Turns out, that was the case.
Millard delivers unforgettable word images and unique refrains that defy banality and fill every page with pure poetry. Sorry drops; rusty latch key of his magnificent remembery; crumbs and crusts of comfort; and speckled surprises are just a few of my favourites amongst many of the fine examples of Millard’s exemplary way with words.
The Duck and the Darklings appears something of a departure from the norm for Stephan Michael King as well, at first. A noticeable lack of colour, definition and tea pots marks the first two thirds of his illustrations. Splats, smears and stains define the imperfectness and soulnessness of the land of Dark. The world Peterboy inhabits, bereft of light and cheer and hope, reminded me of the slum cities of some third world countries and of the dark depths of one’s own despair.
But gradually, almost imperceptibly, the landscape lightens as we eventually rise from the dark of night and the bruised ‘wounds man had made’ with his indifference, heal. A new day dawns, happily, in true trademark Stephen Michael King style.
The Duck and the Darklings is indeed a little bit strange, a little bit dark and a little bit different. It is also a lot of wonderful. Beneath an opaque veil of futility and the poignant reality of the inevitability of life, glows an inextinguishable brilliance.
Millard and King reassure us that even though physically all may be lost, deep down inside, hope beats. It hangs on like life itself and can be strengthened and restored to full splendour; ‘quack, waddle and wing.’ Truly inspirational.
Share this triumphant story with children 5 years and beyond and any adult who’ll listen.
Then, listen to this – not certain if the book motivated my mindset for this song or the reverse. Either way both are something special.
A couple of years ago a diminutive orange cat sprang into our hearts and homes courtesy of picture book creators, Alison Reynolds and Heath McKenzie. That cat was, Marmalade. He caused quite a sensation around our home, so when we heard he was on tour with Alison Reynolds, purrs of satisfaction reverberated throughout the house once more.
A New Friend for Marmalade, sequel to the hugely successful, A Year with Marmalade, is a simple story about making new friends. But as we all know, the art of forming and maintaining friendships is seldom that straightforward. Hierarchy and the delicate differences between boys and girls all begin to surface in early primary years, making social interplay more of a challenge.
When Toby, the boy across the road attempts to join BFFs, Ella, Maddy and Marmalade, things go instantly awry. Toby’s endeavours to fit in are not particularly successful nor welcomed by Ella and Maddy. He is over-exuberant, clumsy and dresses funny. Marmalade, however, sees him differently.
In Marmalade’s moment of crisis, his gamble on Toby pays off and beautiful new friendships are forged all round.
I love the snappy, clean layout of this picture book. Swirling text works effectively against plenty of white space, giving readers the sensation of floating seamlessly along with the story.
The narrative itself is succinct and character driven, with enough repeating phraseology to prompt even the most modest beginner reader to join in the fun.
McKenzie’s soft smudges of pastel colour highlight significant aspects and emotions of the story: the girls’ cubby house and sand castle city, Toby’s cap and scooter, and of course, our little orange hero, Marmalade.
Acceptance, tolerance and making that leap of faith permeate appealingly through this dreamy picture book, resulting in a fine example of ‘less is more’. It certainly stacks up for me.
Marmalade the cat is full of personality. Do you have a pet with personality? Win a piece of artwork by Heath McKenzie. Send along a photo of your personality-plus pet to www.alisonreynolds.com.au, [email protected] or upload to
Random book giveaways!
Just leave a comment on one of the posts in the blog tour, comment on Facebook or even email Alison that you want to enter competition to win A New Friend for Marmalade.
Jump the Slush Pile!
Win a free pass to a Children’s editor’s desk. Just comment on this blog post or any other blog during the A New Friend for Marmalade blog tour and add the initials CB. The more you comment, the more chances you have to win the draw.
Jump the Slush Pile!
Win a free pass to a Non-fiction commissioning editor’s desk. Just comment on this blog post or any other blog during the A New Friend for Marmalade blog tour and add the initials NF. The more you comment, the more chances you have to win the draw.
Win an assessment of Chapter One of a chapter book by the fabulous mentor extraordinaire Dee White. http://deescribewriting.wordpress.com/ Just comment on this blog post or any other blog during the A New Friend for Marmalade blog tour and add the initials DW. The more you comment, the more chances you have to win the draw.
Win a free picture book assessment by Alison! Just comment on this blog post or any other blog during the A New Friend for Marmalade blog tour and add the initials PB. The more you comment, the more chances you have to win the draw.
A week or so ago I rubbed shoulders with some of Kids’ Lit most illuminating talents at the Book Links’ QLD (The Centre for Children’s Literature) third Romancing the Stars event. The objective of these evenings is to meet and listen to as many authors and illustrators wax lyrical about their latest publication as possible in a frenzy of succinct deliveries and rotations – rather like speed dating, but with books and ultimately more satisfying.
Amongst them was, rising star, Andrew King. I first met Andrew and Engibear, both instantly likeable fellows, last year when Andrew and I were amongst the ‘daters’. I confess the first time I laid eyes on his non-typical picture book, I baulked at the complexity of its design and presentation. Perhaps it is the poor mathematician in me, but there seemed too many labels and numbers and graph grids! The detail overwhelmed me and the thought, ‘too much’ flickered through my mind like an wavering light bulb.
But Andrew’s compelling fervour for his work convinced me to look more closely. So I did, and fell in love with what I saw. Engibear’s Dream is neither too busy nor over-detailed, but rather a masterfully thought out and delivered tale of simplicity and perseverance. Engibear’s life is too full to pursue both his dreams and work. He needs help and being a clever engineer like his creator, sets out to design a Bearbot to help him achieve more. But grand schemes are rarely realised first time round. It takes Engibear several attempts to ‘get it right’ but he never gives up on himself or his Bearbot.
More than just a cute rhyming counting book about the rigours of planning and design, Engibear’s Dream covers the themes of sustainable living, finding balance in a world of progress and change and being innovative and tenacious in the face of failure. Mighty issues for small minds, but ones they will assimilate as they follow Engibear’s attempts to succeed, all superbly illustrated both schematically and in explosive colour, by qualified architect Benjamin Johnston.
I needed to find out more about the man behind the bear, behind the robot. So this week I have a bona fide, qualified engineer behind the draft table. Here’s what he had to say…
A 48 year old mixed bag: self, husband, dad, son, brother, relative, friend, engineer, co-worker, band member, aspiring author, committee member, community member, etc…
Fortunately, from my perspective, I have been very lucky and the mix has been good to me – I am trying to be good back.
Q Describe your 10 year old self. Did you have any concept then of what you wanted to do or be when you grew up? If so, what?
A 10 year old mixed bag – just a bit less in the mix – son, brother, relative, friend, school student, footballer, etc…
Fortunately (again) I had a very pleasant and carefree childhood. So carefree that I don’t think I had any real idea of what I wanted to do when I grew up. Interestingly though, I remember that a friend and I were writing and illustrating small books of jokes back in grade 6 and trying to sell them (for about 2 cents each). It has been more than 30 years since I last tried but I am now trying to write and sell books again.
Q Writing for children is not your first chosen occupation. Why take up the challenge now?
Kelly and I have been writing and drawing with our kids for years. We ended up developing characters like Engibear and the Bearbot and writing about their adventures in Munnagong. A few years ago my daughter, Marie-Louise, suggested that we should write a book.
Q Engibear’s Dream is your first picture book for children. What are you trying to impart with this book and why choose the picture book format?
The book started as a way of making engineering more accessible to young children. However, we wanted to make the book something more than an instruction manual. Therefore, we included a storyline (in this case a story about perseverance) and tried to include humour. We have also added numbers so that it can be used as a counting book.
To me drawing is a very powerful communication tool. The combination of words and pictures used in engineering drawings is a particularly useful way to communicate design ideas. The opportunity to include these types of diagrams and images of Engibear and the Bearbot meant that the book had to include pictures.
Q What sets Engibear’s Dream apart from other picture books currently on the shelves?
Engineering – in two ways.
Firstly, having a character that is an engineer, there are very few engineers in children’s literature. To me this is surprising as children seem to be very interested in the things that engineers do. Engibear provides a “friendly face” of engineering and therefore a way to introduce engineering to young children at the right level.
Secondly, including detailed engineering drawings. Ben Johnston is an architect who is used to working with engineers. Ben has created loveable characters and has also been able to contrast them with fantastically detailed design drawings of Munnagong, Engibear’s house and workshop, the Bearbot and its working parts. I think this combination of drawing styles allows children to enjoy the characters and the story and then also spend time thinking about how things work and making things (engineering).
Q How long from conception to publication did it take to realise Engibear’s Dream?
Building Bearbot was an early family story that is about 10 years old and was the basis for Engibear’s Dream. It sat in the cupboard for a long time. However, once we decided to write a book and chose this story it took about three years to get to publication.
Q It takes Engibear up to 10 types from prototype to final version before he engineers the perfect Bearbot. Does it take engineer Andrew the same number of attempts to design something new before getting it right?
If it is a book, yes – easily!
Depending on the complexity of the project I think engineering design can also take a lot of work. However, engineers have developed systems such as standards, computer modelling and design reviews to help make the design process robust.
Q Engibear’s dream is to have a life less strenuous with more time for enjoying the simple pleasures. What’s the one thing on your non-writing wish-list you’d like to tick off /achieve / produce?
I would like to read more fiction.
Q Do you have other writing dreams you’d like to fulfil?
I have a series of Engibear books planned. Munnagong is a busy place; there is a lot of engineering going on and a lot to write about.
Q Engibear is written in quatrain rhyming verse. As a first time author, did you find this difficult to pull off? Why did you choose to tell the story in this way?
We wrote the book in quatrain rhyming verse because this is how we made up verses when my children were younger – it just seemed to be a natural way to rhyme. However, while this worked for family stories, it was very difficult to do it properly. As an engineer I have some technical writing skills but I had to learn a lot about writing verse. Therefore, I did a course with Dr Virginia Lowe at Create a Kids Book and Virginia then mentored me.
Q You chose to publish your book via a partnership publishing company (Little Steps Publishing). Why? What other publication avenues did you explore if any?
I did contact some traditional publishers and received very polite rejections. I thought that rather than keep going down that route it would be better just to get on with it – self publishing seemed to be the answer.
Q What is on the design board for Andrew? What’s your next ‘writing’ project?
We have been making models of the characters in Engibear’s Dream and we have created a rsk based engineering game. I am also working on the next planned Engibear book “Engibear’s Bridge”. This book is about construction of an iconic “green bridge” near Munnagong State School which will be opened as part of the Munnagong Festival.
Brilliant Andrew! You know I can’t wait to meet your new characters and see their designs.
Like the most enthralling kids’ movies, Engibear’s story doesn’t just end with a ‘happily ever after’ moment. Keep page turning and be fascinated by full page project drawings of BBT-10, the Final Version, resplendent with some side-splitting specifications. My young miss could not go past the line drawn end pages detailing Munnagong, home of Engibear either. A fascinating read.
Designed for 3 – 8 year olds. Also riveting for boys, those with inquisitive minds, budding designers and anyone who likes to dream big.
OK, the child is back at school. It’s still primary school but we’re at the senior end now – the business end. No more coaxing along or mincing words.
Fortunately she still adores being read to, so every day we still share glorious minutes together in worlds garnished extravagantly with pictures. Yes, I am a staunch believer of there being no age limit for the enjoyment of picture books.
However the scope and theme of picture books that excite a mid-primary schooler are vastly different from those suitable for 0 – 5 year olds. I don’t often come across those types these days so discovering this little cutie is a real treasure.
I admit I’m a bit of a Heath McKenzie fan. His illustrations are fairy floss for one’s eyes; sweet, adorable and dangerously moreish. I Wanna Be a Pretty Princess is the second picture book McKenzie has both written and illustrated and from the impossibly pink, love-heart festooned cover to the cuter than cute twist at the end, it exudes palace-loads of playful wit and charm.
Our brown-eyed heroine wants to be a princess more than anything else in the world. Who doesn’t when they’re three-something?
Her dreams and imaginings overlay her everydayness as show by McKenzie’s clever pencilled outline illustrations.
Her wishes are soon answered by none other than a real-life pretty princess, who immediately embarks on the transformation of our heroine, aka, pretty princess wanna-be.
In a somewhat Pygmalion fashion, the haughty real princess pulls, primps and perfects Miss Wanna-be into a bonsai version of, well, herself.
But what is the point of wearing so much make-up just to look perfectly ordinary? What is the point of pretty dresses if you cannot frolic and flounce about in them? What fun is a tea party if you cannot enjoy feasting with your friends? And shouldn’t you be allowed to dance like no one’s watching at all times?
Our little princess wanna-be also discovers handsome princes are not all they are cracked up to be so re-writes her own list of rules for being a pretty princess.
What I wanna know is how McKenzie taps so succinctly into the female pre-schoolers’ psyche. He draws and writes ‘little girl’ with blinding accuracy and has created a narrative that smacks with comical imperialistic overtones. Perhaps he has secret pretty princess yearnings too.
I Wanna Be a Pretty Princess is a slightly precocious, very pink, fabulously frothy, floaty picture book that any self-respecting young 3 year old (girl especially) will simply fawn over.
Perfect for sharing with pre-schoolers and those who really do want to know what it takes to be a princess.
With only a few more sleeps till another day of flag flying and fly swatting, it’s time to dig out the meat pies, ice the lamingtons and chill the beers. Australia Day means different things to different Aussies but the sense of camaraderie is an underlying similarity in us all.
There are dozens of Australian based books to cheer about this week, but these two, whilst equally at home on ANZAC reading lists, deserve mention now because of their strong patriotic appeal.
Each of these books deals with the campaign in the Sinai desert in a way that young readers will resonate with even though the story is over 90 years old.
Midnight is based on the true accounts of Lieutenant Guy Haydon and his jet black mare, Midnight. It begins with Midnight’s birth by the riverside at Bloomfield Station in the Hunter Valley, to the mare, Moonlight. All is cool and dark and yielding as reflected in the soft prose and passive illustrations.
Midnight enjoys a close bond with Guy as the two of them work the cattle in their high country home. But it’s the season of unrest, and overseas the first of the Great Wars intensifies. Guy and Midnight heed the call and ‘ride to join the Light Horse’ along with thousands of others.
They enter a strange new world, hot, dry and aggressive; the deserts of the Middle East so beautifully rendered by Lessac’s gouache painted illustrations, and set course for a seemingly do-or-die finale at the ancient town of Beersheba. The 4th and 12th Regiments of the Australian Light Horse are rallied in a last desperate attempt to smash Turkish lines fiercely guarding the precious wells of Beersheba. Success seems unlikely; 800 riders against three thousand well-entrenched soldiers, but miraculously, after the order to charge is given, Beersheba is taken and the Turkish line of defence is broken, thus changing the history of WWI in the Sinai Desert forever.
I enjoyed Greenwood’s sparse yet expressive text. We are given just enough information to allow us to feel the full awful force of battle and share the heart wrenching bond between horse and rider. Young readers should not be frightened or disturbed by all the action-orientated facts and words however, because they are never delivered brutally or aimlessly.
The depiction of Australia’s historic war past has been visited by Greenwood and Lessac before with titles including Simpson and His Donkey, for example. Lessac’s humble yet honest, full page illustrations work well when coupled with the stark realisms of WWI history. I found the illustrations of the closing pages of Midnight particularly endearing. Although steeped in sadness, they transport us gently home to a place of starlit skies and moonlight.
Pamela Rushby’s The Horses Didn’t Come Home treats this same slice of our past with equal sensitivity and respect. I was in tears by the end of the prologue and completely entranced by the tale of Harry and his campaign overseas, this time with a horse named, Bunty.
Bunty is another Australia Waler, hailing from the rugged Australian bush who actually belongs to Harry’s sister, Laura. Their story is told in alternating points of view through the use of letters home from Harry to his family, Laura and interestingly, letters from Bunty (courtesy of Harry for his sister).
You may know the history behind the poignant story. We all know the amazing outcome. The horses won the day. But Rushby tells it in such an absorbing way that the sting of the sun, the smell of horse sweat, the buzz of the flies and the tension of the parching patrols keeps you tethered to the desert long after the battle is over and the book is done. It is nothing short of superlative.
I especially enjoyed Rushby’s author notes at the end, sharing her discovery of Beersheba and highlighting the background to the story. Older aged primary school readers will find this an easily digestible, intriguing and deeply stirring read which in all likelihood will stimulate their appetite to explore our bold past further.
Both books highly recommended as classic Aussie reads.
My first foray into the sea was a moment in time I remember as vividly as a blistering Aussie summer sky. It was in the surf off Magnetic Island in a sea a mere metre high but to a person of toddler stature, the waves were mountainous. It was a character building exercise my mother seemed intent on, not relinquishing her grip on my wrist for a minute. As she dragged me further in, my apprehension escalated and I begged her not to let go.
However high expectations can assuage fear and doubt and in A Swim in the Sea, Bruno experiences all these sensations. Bruno has never been to the beach before. He can’t wait for Mum and Dad to have breakfast and pack the car. He is simply busting to get there and searches excitedly for his first glimpse of ‘the big blue sea’.
At first it is every bit as exhilarating as he anticipated; all ‘sizzling sand’ and ‘salty breezes’. But Bruno’s enthusiasm soon ebbs as he is confronted by his first wave and alas, like me, is slightly overwhelmed and terrified by the huge, ‘white foamy wave monster’.
All that sparkled minutes before becomes dark and threatening for Bruno and no amount of exotic sea-creatures or rock pool treasure can entice Bruno out from his dread until his sister, Tessa, enlists him to help build the wall for the family sand castle.
Perhaps Bruno is feeling a little sheepish after his encounter with the big blue sea. Maybe it’s the sensuous feeling of the sand as he digs that lures him out of hiding. Or it might just be being part of a team that helps Bruno finally regain his sense of purpose and fun because soon the castle is enclosed with a magnificent wall, strong enough and high enough to withstand any rougue wave…almost.
A Swim in the Sea is as enjoyable to read as licking a cone-full of gelato. Sue Whiting neatly avoids the usual beachside unmentionables such as sea lice, sunburn, stingers and sand in your togs in favour of the less tangible emotions of excitement and anxiety. The naivety Bruno possesses not only fuels his expectations but also foments his apprehensions into something almost too gigantic for him to deal with; as gigantic as the ocean itself. Just as Bruno has us teetering on the edge of fear, Whiting draws us back with reassuring images of backyard paddle pools and ‘sparkly blue jelly’, images that any kid, even those who’ve never breathed in the briny scent of the sea before, can relate to.
The beguiling acrylic paintings used by Meredith Thomas to illustrate Bruno’s adventure swirl and surge across the pages providing bucket-loads of textural depth and fluidity.
I especially love Bruno’s faithful little unnamed brown dog who mirrors every moment of Bruno’s pleasure and pain, and ultimately relishes his swim in the sea as much as Bruno.
A Swim in the Sea is a superb little slice of summertime fun and perfect to read with pre-schoolers, beach lovers and those still slightly wary of the surf like me.
Because overcoming your fear and enjoying the moment is often just a matter of letting go, which thankfully my mother didn’t.
The most spectacular thing about a plain old butter cake is often its layers. Colour them, stack them and then you have a thing of unique beauty and depth. This is exactly what makes a stand out picture book for me: its multiple layers. And today I am honoured to share the latest delectable offering from a children’s author and reviewer who needs no introduction to the readers of Boomerang Blog, Tania McCartney.
There’s been some pretty dubious and extraordinary thumping and going ons in Parliament House of late. I’m not sure if Jumpy Roo is responsible for all of them but on the occasion Riley and his colourful collection of mates from previous sojourns visit Canberra, they discover that Jumpy Roo is crazy mad jumpy about something and spring smartly after her to find out exactly what.
Riley’ little red plane is filling up as he and his faithful league pursue Jumpy Roo all around and in and out of some of Canberra’s most iconic attractions plus some less-well known ones. Until, after a near disastrous caffeine fix, Jumpy finally comes to rest in the resplendent gardens of Commonwealth Park to literally stop and ‘smell the flowers’ and thankfully find what she was so frantically looking for.
The previous Riley journeys whetted my appetite for travel and adventure. This one truly satisfies my hunger for that exquisite multi-layering; of ingenious artwork, clever concepts, humour and subtle sensitivity.
Young readers will hardly be aware that they are absorbing the unique heart of Australia’s Capital city as they are transported through McCartney’s economical yet colourful descriptions of place-names and locations. The pace is fast and furious and thanks to McCartney’s unique sense of style and design, the pages are a vivid three dimensional feast of movement and humour. Black and white images spiked with contrasting colour work seamlessly with Kieron Pratt’s charming, cartoonesque illustrations.
Whether you have ever set foot on the ‘grassy lawns of Parliament House’ before or not, this picture book is packed with enough reasons to entice (another) visit. And enough kid appeal to ensure that youngsters from 3 – 10 at least will not let the Canberra Centennial go unnoticed.
To commemorate the imminent release of Riley and the Jumpy Kangaroo, we’re taking off right now with Tania herself. So grab your goggles and hop on board for a blog tour, that’s sure to be as zany as riding with Riley himself and guaranteed more fun than a Federal election.
Q Tania you have dedicated a great deal of your life to writing for children and practised it in several parts of the world. How long have you called Canberra home? How much do you feel the place you reside and write in influences what and how you write?
We’ve been in Canberra four-and-a-half years, which is one of the longest periods I’ve spent anywhere. Before that, my family and I were in Beijing for four years and before that, I’d moved over sixty times, living in various places from Hobart to Paris. When I met my husband, we moved every 18 months, so this time in Canberra is a record!
The place I call home enormously influences what and how I write. I think travel expands the mind, heart and soul in ways nothing else can, so I do hope my work has evolved and improved as I’ve moved around the globe. Travel is high on our family’s priority list and I love to write it into my books—the Riley the Little Aviator series a case in point!
Q This is the fifth book in the Riley Aviator series of adventures. Why did it take so long to get around to Canberra? Was it your intention to coincide Riley’s 5th adventure with the 100th Anniversary of our nation’s capital?
I had released a Riley book every year, and yes, this fifth book took two years—mainly because I’ve been so busy with other book contracts. The Riley books also take a lot of time and energy, as they comprise photos, illustrations and text, but I also design and layout the books.
I had intended to release the Canberra book at the end of last year, in time for the first Centenary celebrations, but I’m glad it was delayed … it’s nice to bring something new to this glorious year, and the best part is that I get to launch the book at Floriade. I’m very excited about that.
Q When did the original concept for Riley the Aviator take off? Tell us what are you trying to convey with this picture book series?
I was working in Beijing as an expat magazine editor and columnist for several English language magazines and had access to a large audience. I’d been writing children’s picture books for a very long time but had never subbed them; I thought it might be fun to publish my own picture book, as printing is so cheap in China and I’ve always adored book design.
So, I set out on a self-publishing journey—because I could—and it worked out very well for me. The first book was Riley and the Sleeping Dragon: A journey around Beijing, which followed the series’ photographic format, with and a little boy flying around in a little red plane, in this case looking for a sleeping dragon.
It was very much a home-made production. I took photos of a little tin plane I found at Panjiayuan antiques market, sourced an illustrator online and set about creating this book, which was hugely successful in the capital. I was in my third print run by the time we came home in 2009.
Essentially my goal was to take kids on a journey around that amazing city, but also give them subtle clues and reminders about the cultural aspects that comprise the city. The dragon, for example, ends up morphing from the Great Wall, ‘waking up to the world’, and so he was a metaphor for this strong, powerful, ancient country, opening its doors to the world during a momentous time in history (the 2008 Olympic Games).
In my mind, this first book was a personal memento for my own kids—and other expat kids—but it became much more than that, and you can imagine my surprise and delight when the book did well back home. The way this book was embraced was the kick-starter for a series of Riley books.
Q Riley’s journeys allow us to explore a number of fascinating locations with some suitably exotic characters including a splendid dragon and dazzling lion. Was it difficult deciding on the star of your latest book?
It was the easiest yet! Canberra residents enjoy the surreal reality of kangaroos hopping around their urban neighbourhoods—a reality we spend so much time trying to quash in the eyes of the rest of the world! So a kangaroo was, without question, the perfect animal for Riley to trail.
I had SO much fun with this character. She really is a hoot and I love how frantic she becomes while searching for something she’s lost. I also love the poignancy of the story’s ending. In this way, it’s the most emotional Riley book I’ve done.
Q Did the character choices in Jumpy Kangaroo come first in this instance or the location where Riley’s adventure takes place?
The locations always come first. I do this because I want to choose locations that are famous but also interest children. I then take the character and place them in those locations, and—essentially—the characters are the ones who *show me/tell me what they’ll get up to at each stop. Roo’s reactions were brilliant, and I think kids will really relate to her high energy and kooky nature. (*via Kieron, the illustrator)
Q How important was it (for you) to include as much of Canberra’s sights, attractions and significant monuments in this book? Did you have to leave much out? I noticed there are no petrol stations featured in this tour. I never seem to notice any petrol stations in Canberra! Why is that? (Not a compulsory question)
Oh petrol stations—don’t start me. I only know of two. Thankfully, one is close-by but we’ve had to take diversions to Kingston on many an occasion. I’m guessing that’s because the capital is so teensy (anywhere in 25 minutes or less) so we don’t need to refill our tanks often??
The thing about Canberra, other than its petrol stations, is that it has so very, very much to see and do. I adore the city for that reason. So yes, much was left out of the book. I tried to include the Big Guns—Parliament, War Memorial, Lake Burley Griffin—but also sites that attract kids, like Questacon and the Zoo. I love the aerial shot in the book because that encompasses much that had to be left out!
Q Amongst a myriad of other scintillating past times, you have a particular talent and penchant for photography. How many of the photographs used in the Riley series are yours? Was satisfying two loves at once, writing and shutter-bugging, a tricky thing to pull off?
I do love photography, and most photos in the Riley series are mine, though I had to source a few for Riley and the Grumpy Wombat because I couldn’t get to Melbourne to flesh out my catalogue of images. The Victorian Tourism Board helped in that regard.
My Handmade Living book was filled with my photography and my next book with the National Library features my photographs of children. I’m also working on some new picture book concepts which include photos. I love it and it’s never a chore!
Q I love the occasional quirky references you include in the Jumpy Kangaroo along with the imaginative use of language. Confuddled had me chuckling from page one. Is your reference to R U OK ? a deliberate inclusion, subtly reminding us of the importance of checking in with friends and being mindful of their problems or just a lovely play on the vernacular for kids?
The R U OK? part in the book was a conscious addition … Riley is a rampant adventurer but hisunderlying modus operandi is that he really genuinely cares about each animal he seeks. Roo is indeed frantic in this book, and it’s his concern that forces him to trail her and attempt to help her out.
This caring nature is also reflected in the animal characters that come along for the ride (along with lots of quirk and humour). I think modern kids are so gorgeous and so talented but as the world gets smaller and smaller, they become more and more desensitised. I hope my books help them understand how important it is to care.
Q Finally, if you could jump into Riley’s little red biplane and fly anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
This changes all the time but right now it would be Boston or Ireland. Hmm … must be experiencing an Irish fetish. Not sure why. Maybe I’ve just spent too much time indoors at this computer and am desperate for a slice of green. I’ve also never visited either place, and I do love experiencing the new.
Q Additional bonus question: Is the blonde lady touting too many shopping bags along City Walk who I think it is?!
Yes! And the kids on the bench are my kids—the Real Riley and my ever-patient daughter Ella. My next series will feature her!
Thank you for sharing Riley, Roo and best of all Canberra with us Tania! Hope your blog tour is as thrilling a journey as the one you’ve given us with Riley and the Jumpy Kangaroo.
But wait, there’s even more!
The Jumpy Roo book launch is being held at Floriade this year! Anyone living in or visiting Canberra on 15 September is invited along, but RSVPs are essential if you want a goodie bag and balloon! You can find out more here. Can’t make the launch and want to read more? Then check out all of Tania’s great books available for purchase here.
You can also visit the Riley the Little Aviator website to see updates, learn more about the places Riley visits, and see behind-the-scenes work. There’s also some Fun Activities for kids.