Curiously Good Books from Around the World

TimelineGecko Press in New Zealand plays a phenomenal role in discovering, and then making accessible, outstanding children’s books from around the world. Their 2016 publications are from countries as diverse as Sweden, Mexico, Japan and Portugal.

One of the most impressive books I’ve seen for a long time is Timeline: A Visual History of Our World by Peter Goes (Belgium). It is appropriately oversized and I felt a frisson of recollection and excitement when I opened many of the pages, remembering my first encounters with aspects of ancient history all over again. Beginning life, dinosaurs, first people and settlements merge into fascinating cameos of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Byzantine Empire. Ottoman, Chinese, Inca and North American histories are also covered. Modern history and world wars bring us to the present day. Australia’s claim to fame is the band ACDC.

France-based Stephanie Blake returns with the bold, bright colours and clear lines of her popular rabbit, Simon in Super Rabbit.

Don't CrossPortugal shines with Isabel Minhos Martins and Bernardo P. Carvalho’s Don’t Cross the Line! This is an exceptional, innovative postmodern (mainly) visual representation of people who aren’t allowed to cross the line onto the next page due to a pointless rule. It is a telling fable.

What Dog Knows is a cleverly constructed mixture of fact and fiction by Sylvia Vanden Heede and Marije Tolman from the Netherlands, translated by Bill Nagelkerke. It is structured into four sections: Mummies and skeletons; Robots, knights and pirates; Dinosaurs and dragons; and Rockets and the moon.

The delightfully flawed but kind, Detective Gordon, a cake-loving frog, returns in Swedish creators Ulf Nilsson and Gitte Spee’s A Complicated Case. As we are reminded in the detective’s Book of Law, ‘It is permitted to be nice but forbidden to be nasty’.

DaniAlso from Sweden is the poignant story of Dani in Life According to Dani by Rose Lagercrantz and Eva Eriksson, both highly awarded children’s book creators. This chapter book continues Dani’s realistic life, here dealing with her response to her father’s new girlfriend.

From Mexico is Paula Bossio’s board book, The Pencil (also called The Line). Deliberate smudges create texture and dimension alongside the fascinating pencil line followed by a young girl.

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe is a heartwarming, yet edgy tale of new friendships from Japan by Megumi Iwasa and Jun Takabatake. It’s unpredictable yet highly satisfying.

And we finish in Israel with Michal Shalev’s hilarious How to Be Famous. FamousThe pigeon is completely oblivious to her true level of fame.

Thanks for making these astounding books available to a wide readership, Gecko Books.

Original books for all ages from NZ

changeoverThere is an incredible depth of literary talent in New Zealand ranging from Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton to Kate di Goldi, Lloyd Jones, Janet Frame and the incomparable Margaret Mahy. NZ is also the base for amazing publisher Gecko Press, which publishes books from around the world for children.

We should keep an eye on what NZ is publishing because it is so close to us here in Australia and, as in many areas; it punches above its weight.

Some of Gecko Press’s most outstanding recent books are The Big Book of Animals of the World, an oversized board book by Swedish/German author-illustrator Ole Konnecke.Bert

This creator also pops up with You Can Do It, Bert! Children will wonder what Bert is trying to do. Most of the action happens in the illustrations and the text is minimal.

Help! The Wolf is Coming! by French author Cedric Ramadier and illustrator Vincent Bourgeau is a very appealing, interactive story which will scare children as the wolf approaches but also empower them because they can tilt and shake the book to ward the wolf off.

Another fascinating book for young readers about animals is Line Up, Please! by Japanese author/illustrator Tomoko Ohmura. Fifty animals join a queue but the surprise is where they are queuing. The numerals are written, as well as the animals’ names, such as ‘giraffe’.

International best-seller Stephanie Blake’s rabbit reappears in I Want Spaghetti. How can the little rabbit be tempted to eat something else? The bold, clear colours and design are a visual lure.

When I am happiestWhen I am Happiest by Swedish author Rose Lagercrantz, illustrated in black and white by Eva Eriksson, is a heartwarming early chapter book about Dani who always tries to be happy despite having lost her mother at a young age. When her father is hit by a car, she has to summon more courage.

Dani has two hamsters, and a hamster is the larger-than-life protagonist of Travels of an Extraordinary Hamster by Astrid Desbordes and Pauline Martin. This self-absorbed hamster features in the many short stories that make up this brightly coloured book.

Very short, but profound, stories also form the structure of The King and the Sea by Heinz Janisch and Wolf Erlbruch. This book is inventive and uses a restrained, perfectly calibrated mixture of collage.

Finding Monkey Moon isn’t published by Gecko Press but is written by NZ author Elizabeth Pulford and illustrated by Kate Wilkinson (Walker Books). It is a picture book that tells the story of Michael who can’t find his toy monkey. His father is a patient, loving man.

BakehouseNZ legend Joy Cowley’s latest book is The Bakehouse (Gecko Press). It is an introspective novel about war and some of its effects in NZ. My favourite recent Cowley is Speed of Lightwhich I reviewed here.

Elizabeth Knox is another standout NZ writer. Previous works are The Vintner’s Luck, The Dreamhunter Duet and Mortal Fire, which I reviewed here. Her recent book Wake is adults-only and is an addictive horror/sci-fi set in a NZ town where most of the inhabitants are killed. Only fourteen people survive and they must try to keep community and civilization alive, as well as themselves. Not for the faint-hearted.

In Wake, like other books mentioned here, we can expect NZ creators and publishers to give us something out of the ordinary.

Real Books to Read

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Max’s dog.

Here is Max.

Here is Max’s bear.

And continues:

Max kisses the bear.

Max licks the bear.

Max bites the bear.

Max throws the bear.

Children will enjoy the realistic humour.

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

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

Is that Pim?

No, that’s a bag.

Is that Pim?

No, that’s a can.

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

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

I’m a hungry dinosaur,

Oh, the cake looks nice.

I’ll chomp and chew

A piece or two …

Maybe one more slice!

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

Dog In, Cat Out

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

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

Green Eggs and Ham

 

 

Show Books

Very Hungry CaterpillarIt’s holiday time so some shows based on outstanding children’s books are currently being performed in Sydney and surrounds, as well as in other cities around Australia.

A highlight is The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Penguin), a production created around four books by Eric Carle: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, of course, The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse – my new favourite, The Very Lonely Firefly and Mister Seahorse. Literature is celebrated in the performance and the backdrop is an actual book with turning pages. The show will also be playing in Melbourne and Brisbane and will tour in 2016 if successful. Judging by the sell-out Sydney season, this will not be an issue.Blue Horse

Along with a couple of others, I am writing teacher notes about the play which will be available via a website linked to the show soon. This is a great opportunity to read and re-read Eric Carle’s stunning picture books. The production is excellent. The children (and adults) in the audience were besotted.

A second book-related show is The Gruffalo. This loved picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler about a mouse in the woods has been playing around Australia.

GruffaloAs well as reading the book itself, this is an opportune time to read other books by this creative team, including The Gruffalo’s Child, Tiddler, The Snail and the Whale, Stick Man, Superworm and their most recent collaboration, The Scarecrows’ Wedding (Scholastic).

The Scarecrow’s Wedding is quite a sophisticated tale about a scarecrow couple, Betty O’Barley and Harry O’Hay who wish to marry but suave Reginald Rake interrupts their plans. It will also be enjoyed by Aaron Blabey’s legion of fans.Scarecrows Wedding

Another production inspired by a picture book is Kit Williams’ Masquerade. Unfortunately this 1978 book is only available second-hand. An enterprising publisher should re-publish it. Playwright Kate Mulvany was enthralled and comforted by this book when she was a child suffering from cancer. It is playing now at the Sydney Opera House and will be in Adelaide for the Festival and elsewhere, no doubt. I can’t wait to see it soon.

RabbitsGood luck getting tickets for The Rabbits Opera, based on the book by John Marsden and Shaun Tan (Lothian/Hachette Australia), with music composed by the brilliant Kate Miller-Heidke and libretto by Lally Katz. The Rabbits will play in Perth and Melbourne this year. Hopefully it travels further.

Where is Rusty? by Dutch author-illustrator, Sieb Postuma (Gecko Press) is about a curious young dog lost in a department store. It has aired overseas as theatre and television and is currently available as a picture book. Its themes of hiding, searching and safety are ideal for young explorers.

Another book recently published by exciting Gecko Press, although we perhaps don’t want to think about this subject quite yet, is I don’t want to go to school! by Stephanie Blake.I Don't Want to go to School

Boldly illustrated in bright colours and with some comic panels, this is a quirky, heart-warming story about starting school. And this diverts us to the many wonderful Australian and other books on this important topic, beginning with Starting School by Jane Godwin and Anna Walker (Viking/Penguin), the classic Starting School by the Ahlbergs and my evergreen favourite, First Day by Margaret Wild and Kim Gamble (Allen & Unwin).

First Day

ZOU AND THE BOX OF KISSES

Zou and the Box of Kisses is a beautiful new picture book written and illustrated by Michael Gay about a situation that every kid is faced with at some time in their life – spending their first night away from home.

Zou is preparing to leave on school camp and doesn’t want to seem like a baby, but he knows he is going to miss his daily dose of kisses. So Mum and Dad make dozens of paper kisses and put them in a box for Zou to use whenever he feels lonely. Mum kisses one side of the paper and Dad kisses the other. Then they fold each piece of paper three times and tuck them into a stripy box – which is particularly appropriate seeing as the characters in this story are Zebras.

Inside the box is a kiss for every night and a kiss for every morning, and a few spares, ‘Just in case’.

It turns out to be just as well there are a few spares because Zou soon discovers that he’s not the only zebra on camp missing his family.

Zou and the Box of Kisses is an endearing story about a little zebra who finds comfort in sharing. This is a great read aloud book and there are plenty of themes to discuss with young children including comfort, empathy, train rides, sleep overs and separation anxiety.

Zou and the Box of Kisses is full of gentle humour and the simple, colourful illustrations clearly express the emotions that a young child would feel on their first trip away from home.

Michael Gay lives in France and is the illustrator and author of more than 60 books for children. Zou and the Box of Kisses is published by Gecko Press which specialises in English versions of books from around the world.

Zou and the Box of Kisses is a book of sensitivity and charm for children aged 4+