Applauding Individuality – Picture Books that Celebrate Being Different

Young children don’t always notice differences in people, at least not in the passively aggressive way some adults are inclined to do. Sadly, the recognition of characteristics dissimilar to their own either physical or behavioural is largely a mindset learned from their environment. Picture books like these do a tremendous job of challenging erroneous mindsets and applauding individuality. They are charming and direct, yet subtle and entertaining enough to read repeatedly.

Along Came A Different by Tom McLaughlin

Dramatically different (pardon the pun) from anything else McLaughlin has produced before, this avant-garde picture book cleverly combines colour recognition (with emphasis on the primary colours), geometry and social acceptance all in one neat entertaining package. Several groups of differents converge into one community space but despise one another because reds, blues and yellows just don’t match. Rules are established and boundaries are enforced. Life is tense and restrictive. Until one day, quite unexpectedly, a really different different comes along, radically altering their perceptions and igniting a massive appreciation of how being different is actually better. Friendship prevails and happiness blooms.

This story told in few words and bold striking characters, relays a simple premise of live and let love. It suggests to children that you can be any shape, size, or colour and still have a voice. You can like any type of music and have friends who love oranges even if you do not. You are unique and therefore amazing. It’s that simple. A modern day classic that welcomes differences and embraces change. Magnificent. Timely. Recommended.

Bloomsbury Children’s Books May 2018

My Storee by Paul Russell and Aska

Australian NAPLAN advocates turn away now for this tremendous picture book blithely ignores language conventions and unapologetically dismisses sticklers for rules. I love how it also challenges every spell check on the planet.

Derived from the author’s own experience with dyslexia, My Storee is a beautifully refreshing expose of encouraging creativity for creativity’s sake by forsaking the bounds of perfect spelling and correctness; paradigms that can severely road block learning and advancement for a person afflicted with dyslexia.

A young boy is a master storyteller but is afraid to let his dragons loose at school for fear of grammatical reprimand. That is until a teacher with extreme foresight, long hair and very loud shirts breezes into his life and gives him permission to be who he is and shine. Thank you Mr Watson.

Full marks for this book, which screams thinking outside of the box, applauds alternative teaching approaches and champions creative verve to the nth degree. I love it, every word and every ridiculously bold bright illustration. Viva la Mr Watsons, wherever you are out there. We need more like you. My Storee is concrete reinforcement of embracing who you are and all that you have, or have not, with verve and positivity.

EK Books August 2018

Continue reading Applauding Individuality – Picture Books that Celebrate Being Different

Anything But Catastrophic – Picture Books about Cats

Cat lovers! You won’t find disaster here. In fact, far from it. These following cat books are brilliant enough to stretch your imaginations, tickle your sweet spots and scratch at your curiosity. And they all so precisely capture the little nuances that make cats, cats.

In this sequel to The Cat Wants Custard by dynamic duo, P. Crumble and Lucinda Gifford, The Cat Wants Cuddles delights us with humorous cat antics and extreme mood swings. Whether being notoriously independent, totally ambivalent or attention-deprived, Kevin is a typical tomcat.

Surly facial expressions and skittish body language emphasise the stubborn and scornful retaliation Kevin assigns to his owner’s requests for a cuddle. Managing to escape the torturous grip of patting hands, and with absolutely no regard for his flatmate, Dog, Kevin finally finds some peace and quiet. That is until a wave of jealousy rushes over him and he commands dominance over Dog for his former lap-position… but that doesn’t last long!

This book is decidedly potent with its bold, primary-based colours and energetic qualities that exude passion and wit, especially those lime-green, telling eyes. The Cat Wants Cuddles is a book that preschoolers will be snatching, cradling and squeezing with both paws.

Scholastic Australia, May 2017.

The Catawampus Cat is full of personality and individuality, and utter charm. Jason Carter Eaton writes a thoughtful and witty tale that inspires his readers to consider the world from a different perspective. Gus Gordon’s mixed media illustrations are characteristically charismatic and ooze with a sway of retro style and a hint of contemporary flair. The characters are flawlessly represented to match their quirky names and traits that Eaton so brilliantly describes.

When the catawampus, aka diagonally-angled, cat enters the town on a Tuesday morning, one by one each of the villagers see things from another point of view. Because of the askew-walking feline, lost possessions are found, relationships rekindled, creativity is sparked and new challenges are triumphed – all with thanks to the power of the tilt. Soon the whole town is lopsided, and they even mark the first Tuesday of the new year as “Catawampus Cat Day” in his honour. But all the cat wants is to be unique, so he sets off… ‘straight’ out of town!

Eccentric, memorable and thought-provoking with the most loveable and endearing character. The Catawampus Cat will be the new favourite for preschool and early years children…it’s ours!

Penguin Random House, April 2017.

Doodle Cat is back, but this time Doodle Cat is Bored. At first this drives him out of his mind, but then he finds a crayon. Experimenting with it as a soup spoon, a spade, a dance partner finally leads the cat to discover it is in fact for doodling… But he already knew that, right? Demonstrating his creative, imaginative, and sometimes crude mind through the use of the crayon is a tiring feat for the red, graphic squiggle that is Doodle Cat. And with one final engagement, he asks the audience, “What will you draw?”

Kat Patrick writes this story with bounce, energy and vitality. The sentences are simple to create an interactive yet highly amusing report from the view of the cat. Lauren Marriott’s illustrations reflect this beautifully. Her choice of fire engine red perfectly assigns Doodle Cat his prominence on the mostly plain white backgrounds. She has also introduced the front cover’s lemon yellow, which features sporadically within the pages, too.

Young children will certainly be ‘drawn’ to both the simplicity of the book but also the scope of curiosity and artistic opportunities it reinforces. Doodle Cat is Bored is bursting with ideas to quell those boredom blues.

Scribble, May 2017.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Empowering Inspiration – Picture Book Reviews

The following picture books possess special qualities in their ability to address difficult topics, but in most sensitive and inspiring ways. From the team at publishing company, Empowering Resources, here are three valuable resources that can literally change the lives of many dealing with tough life circumstances.

imageThe courageous and talented Naomi Hunter, founder of Empowering Resources has brilliantly delivered these touching tales to the world. Her first authored book, A Secret Safe to Tell, explores the delicate issue of childhood sexual abuse, based on a troubling time from her past. With beautifully gentle illustrations by Karen Erasmus, this book is one of comfort and encouragement in feeling safe enough to trust in seeking help.

Children who are victims of abuse understandably are confused when fun, warm love and a special relationship with someone they know turns into a period of awkwardness, hurts and threats. Even though this is what they are told to believe, abuse is never their fault. When the little girl in the story eventually faces her fears and exposes her secret to the flowers and birds, she is serendipitously blessed with a new, colourful heart and the power to be free…

Unsurprisingly shortlisted in the 2015 Australian Book Industry Awards, A Secret Safe to Tell has brought about a revolution of support for this initiative and has helped many around the world share their stories and lift their heavy burdens in order to heal. It has also already been, and will continue to be a fabulous, ’empowering resource’ for early years educators and parents to teach their children about body safety, appropriate interactions with older people in their lives, and that it is ok to tell.

Read more in my interview with Naomi Hunter.

imageNaomi‘s most recently published book, Even Mummy Cries, explores the emotional rollercoaster that often accompanies families on their journey that is life. Whatever the type of struggles being faced, it is perfectly normal, and healthy even, to have an outlet for the internal battles we are dealing with. For this heart-rending and reassuring story, the soft watercolour and pencil illustrations by Karen Erasmus are suitably gentle, visually captivating and highly impactful.

The children in the story just adore their fun mummy, who loves them back “more than a GAZILLION BILLION TRILLION plus INFINITY.” But when she reverts to a sad and lonely place, and EXPLODES with tears in the middle of the night, the kids feel a sense of hopelessness and a deep sting in their hearts. Until the tears stop…

imageAt the very heart of this book is the security for its readers; Mums, you are not alone. Kids, well, you just do what you do and your mummies love and treasure you no matter what! With beautiful sentiments, Even Mummy Cries is another important book for primary school aged children to understand some of life’s complexities without feeling guilt, and the power for parents to be able to share their pressures in sensitive ways without feeling shame.

Read more about Naomi Hunter’s inspiration for this story here.

imageYou’re Different, Jemima! explores self-expression, individuality and self-assurance. Written with gusto, just like the nature of our main character, Jedidah Morley sends a positive and nurturing message that standing ‘loud and proud’, and just being yourself is more than ok. I particularly like the colour variations that Karen Erasmus uses to highlight the scenes of imagination and personality as opposed to the overall sense of uniformity.

Jemima’s teacher, Mrs Smith and the other students degrade her for ‘colourful’ and unique ways of expressing herself. It is her eccentric-looking duck picture that has everyone, including Jemima, questioning her sense of belonging. But when Mrs Chuckles takes over teaching the next day, Jemimah’s self doubt is put to rest and her ‘differences’ are celebrated.

You’re Different, Jemima! is a refreshing story for preschoolers that allows and encourages individual personalities to shine as bold and bright as they can be.

The Empowering Resources website with all their current and upcoming books can be found here.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Quirks, Quandaries and Quips – Picture Book Reviews  

I love coming across books that allow the freedom to ‘think outside the square‘, so to speak. Books that play ‘chasey‘ with your imagination and let you run wild. And books that at the end of a chaotic day leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling in your heart. The following three picture books do all those things in their own special kind of way.

imageStanley, written and illlustrated by Colin Thompson, takes quirky to a whole new level. Thompson, a legend in the children’s book world, superbly paints a solid picture of his unique characters, both conceptually and visually. Focusing on the themes of non-judgement and individuality, his descriptive language, gangly humans and mixed media images align perfectly.

Stanley may look as if he was “built out of bricks that had been leant against and rained on and loved…, as strong as a mountain” but in truth he was “as soft as a pillow.” Adorably depicted across the page is Stanley in his muddy glory, sitting wide-eyed and innocent under the spotlight. As you will see, the thing that makes Stanley happy and his tail quiver most is his red ball (and his human, Gerald). Life with a small family (Stanley, Gerald and his mum) has its perks and responsibilities, but at times he feels lonely. One day, Stanley is disappointed after an unfortunate occurrence at the park. Then, without realising how it happened (since dogs usually don’t understand the intricacies of people’s bonding process), his house is filled with a new family. Stanley may not realise the connection between his park experience and his current living situation, but he finds himself enjoying the baking smells, extra company… and a brand new red ball. Although, he probably could have done without the tablecloth bridesmaid’s dress!

Stanley is a witty and gentle book about the complexities of human personalities and relationships and the simplicities of a dog’s life. There is also a subtle yet valuable message about taking risks with understanding people (and dogs) and looking beyond the exterior. Recommended for primary school children.

ABC Books, 2016.

imageChasing her previous excitable tale, Clementine’s Walk, Annie White‘s latest delight follows suit in the same charismatic demeanour; it’s Clementine’s Bath.

Guaranteed to whip preschoolers along on this wild romp, Clementine and her smells sure do arouse. Pongs from rubbish piles are not quite considered the bed of roses that this carefree pooch relishes, and the family won’t have a whiff of it. So now she finds herself in a bit of a quandary. Bounding off in rhyming couplets, Clementine makes her dash away from the dreaded B-A-T-H and all through the house. Hiding in an assortment of obscure places, like between pot plants, into the shed and inside the toybox, Clementine’s efforts fall flat and she, to her dismay, surrenders with a SPLASH! But perhaps there are perks to being clean and pleasant-smelling, after all.

Delightfully energetic and fast paced in all the right places, Clementine’s Bath exudes this chaotic liveliness that most dog owners know all too well. With softness, warmth and colour, this book will groom young readers into the excitement of caring for a pet.

New Frontier Publishing, 2015.

imagePreschoolers will take absolute pleasure at the quips these characters have prepared for their readers. This is a Circle by Chrissie Krebs is no more than an all-rounded, wise-cracking, rhyming pursuit in top form. With bold, vibrant colours and animated personalities much in likeness of Ben Wood’s illustrations, here is a page-turning, eye-catching and whimsical tale with an abundance of energy.

It all looks innocent enough when we are introduced to the seemingly-friendly characters and a random selection of labelled objects. But things quickly turn sour when animal turns against animal and objects are used for pure selfish gain. First the tap-dancing goat climbs the enormous box. Then the song-singing cat is cat-apulted up there due to his own reckless driving habits. A violent pant-wearing fox angers the wild-looking bear who chases him around and up to the top of the box (with the help of a pile of the randomly-selected shapes, objects and vehicles). And so now that they have successfully squabbled their way to the top, what will be their next quandary?

A highly entertaining collection of giggles and teachable moments with its clever integration of concepts and rhyming words. The text highlights those key words with bold and enlarged print, enabling young readers to identify the sounds and main elements in the story. Oh, not to mention the slick, tactile cut out circle on the front cover is a great way to hook readers in! Funny, innovative and engaging, This is a Circle will have children from age three running in circles to have this book read to them again and again.

Penguin Random House Australia, 2016.

For more concept-related books see Dimity‘s list here.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Children with Anxiety – Picture Book Reviews

Often it is our differences, fears and anxieties that contribute to our feelings (or lack thereof) of self-worth. It is common within our society to feel out of place or lack self-confidence. But you know what? That’s OK! Maybe it just takes a little time to warm up, to find your feet and be ready to tackle the world. Understanding and accepting oneself can often be a process that takes maturing, and a gentle and sympathetic support system can be a vital part of that growth. The following two books deal with these tender matters in beautifully delicate and encouraging ways.

imageThe Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade, Davina Bell (author), Allison Colpoys (illus.), Scribe Publications, 2015.

A sensitive young boy named Alfie feels the weight of the world on his shoulders as he struggles with social anxiety. Naturally, he’d rather hide than face performing as Captain Starfish in the upcoming fancy-dress parade. Those all-too-familiar feelings of nervousness that he has experienced before return. Admitting his fear of failure to the cowboys on his wallpaper is scary enough, but how will his Mum react when he tells her he can’t go?

Well, Mum (and Dad) are gratefully understanding. In fact, Mum takes Alfie to the aquarium instead. The underwater world is beautiful and wondrous, but upon spotting a starfish, just like his costume, he feels that heaviness weighing upon him once more. Fortuously it is a little shy clownfish that he connects with who shows him that it’s alright to wait in the wings (or coral, so to speak) until the time to emerge from the depths feels right.

imageDavina Bell’s genuinely heartfelt and beautifully written text so effectively relates Alfie’s fears and nightmares in an empathetic, delicate manner. Equally, Colpoys‘s exquisite illustrations with their soothing blues and greys and pops of neon orange, and the fantastic use of space and perspective add that perfect depth of soul and vulnerability.

The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade’ speaks into the lives of many children facing anxiety. A poignant and enchanting tale set to add a little sparkle and illumination to the more sensitive souls of this often daunting world.

imageBeing Agatha, Anna Pignataro (author, illus.), The Five Mile Press, 2015.

Here we have another reserved child fearing the judgement of others. But just like it did for the boy in Davina Bell’s book, it takes time and encouragement for this character to truly realise what makes her an individual and thus overcome her internal struggles.

We are immediately drawn in with a pertinent discussion topic. First we see that Agatha’s parents are of an inter-racial (or inter-specie) communion, and that Agatha is centred at this somewhat of a divide at family get-togethers. Then there’s the fact that her likes and abilities seem less impressive than others’ – another reason to feel a sense of lack of worth. So Agatha decides that hiding from her classmates is the solution, until she realises that she’s more important than she thinks. With a little reinforcement from her teacher, Agatha’s friends are able to rattle off a number of traits that make her special. But they all agree, “no one else is a better Agatha than you!”

imageWhilst Anna Pignataro‘s simple narrative relays Agatha’s worries about her lack of belonging, it is her pictures that form the basis for its interpretation. Anna’s language is sensitive and gentle, and her illustrations support these qualities unequivocally. The grey tones of the charcoal render the story’s restrain and softness yet carry a sense of similarity amongst the characters. And it is the pops of watercolours and collage elements that give life, spirit and individuality to each of them, too. A wonderfully eclectic mix that this book highlights of difference as well as belonging.

‘Being Agatha’ is a modest, sweet and intriguing story lightly addressing feelings of anxiety with a reassuring touch that a range of young children (and species) between 2 and 6 will be able to relate to.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Finding the Love within – Part 2 – Annabel’s Dance

Annabel's DanceI mentioned last week the merits of not judging a book (or a person) by its cover. Today my hypocrisy shows for I’m rather partial to the cover of our Part 2 picture book review about dealing with differences, newly released, Annabel’s Dance, by Diane Jackson Hill and Lois Bury.

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's Dance illo spreadAnnabel 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?

Diane Jackson HillHill 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.

Lois BuryBury’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.

Wombat Books February 2016

 

Review – Peas in a Pod by Tania McCartney and Tina Snerling

Peas in a Pod, Tania McCartney (author), Tina Snerling (illus.), EK Books, June 2015.  

COVER Peas in a Pod absolute finalThe theme of individuality and self-expression is popular amongst children’s books, and one that has been brilliantly characterised by the award-winning duo, Tania McCartney and Tina Snerling in their latest picture book, ‘Peas in a Pod’. This author / illustrator pairing have already brought us rich stories acknowledging the importance of honouring our own and others’ unique and distinct qualities in ‘An Aussie Year’ and ‘Tottie and Dot’. So it is no surprise that this new release is equally as delicious. It’s contemporary, fun and totally lovable.  

Pippa, Pia, Poppy, Polly and Peg are born five little peas in a pod. They live in a uniform world; a world of sameness. Amongst backdrops of hot pinks, reds, blues and greens, the quintuplets harmoniously cry, potty, eat, sleep and sit all together, all the time. They are completely identical, from the expressions on their faces, down to their adorable thumb-sucking and tushy-pushing mannerisms.
All is calm and amicable, until one fine day the girls begin to develop their own interests. And a burst of colourful chaos soon explodes in a once peaceful household. But mum and dad won’t have a bar of it and quickly put things back to ‘normal’. With already having tasted a small slice of heavenly, multi-coloured pie, these growing peas no longer fit into their parents’ mould, and once again take control of their own lives.  
Dishevelled rooms, shoe boxes piled up high, delightful pastimes and not-so delightful attitudes, looking through rose-coloured glasses, and ambitious dreams. Pippa, Pia, Poppy, Polly and Peg are finally gloriously happy to be able to express their unique differences… Except for maybe one thing that remains the same!  

IMG_8946Tania McCartney‘s delicately written story, with a touch of humour and a punch of energy, is the perfect anchor for the fine detail, spirit and vibrancy of Tina Snerling‘s pictures that almost literally bounce off the page. Her modern, fashionista-style cartoons and pops of vivid colours beautifully support the text with warmth and effervescence.  

‘Peas in a Pod’ is a refreshing, enchanting story of celebrating individuality and allowing personalities to shine. Children from age three will take great pleasure in duplicating their experience with these mischievous sisters and stunning illustrations again and again and again… Some things are just meant to be the same!

Teaching notes are available at:

Stay in touch for a captivating interview with talented author, Tania McCartney. Coming soon!