Animal World Problems – Laugh-Out-Loud Picture Books

Simply put, the following three picture books contain high degrees of absurdity, personality and fervour that turn logic on its head. But these animals with major problems will make you laugh til your cheeks hurt. You have been warned!

imagePandamonia, Chris Owen (author), Chris Nixon (illus.), Fremantle Press, 2016.

‘Pandemonium’: Wild and noisy uproar, rumpus, commotion, bedlam.
‘PANDAMONIA’: complete and utter chaos, often following the disturbance of a blissfully sleeping panda.

Beware! Take heed! This is a pre-empted cautionary tale about the absolute madness that is sure to erupt in the animal kingdom should you ignore the warnings to leave the peaceful panda be.

All is calm and tranquil when we enter the zoo with the introduction of the single, sleeping panda. Slowly but surely, page colours become bolder and more intense, and spreads grow thicker and fuller with an increasing number of creatures rampaging before our eyes. A fast-paced, rollicking rhythm escalates the chaos as a grumpy panda would undoubtedly hype up hippos, torment the toes of elephants, cause bottoms to jiggle and gibbons to giggle, jabirus to jabber, bats to swing and raccoons to sing, and generally create a deafening din. With every specie on the planet predicted to be in a raucous spin, the last thing you want to do is wake the panda. Oops…

Pandamonia is as good as having a wild party in your own bedroom, where the music, rhythm and crazy shenanigans come alive. Absolute fun, hilarity and joy exude from this book, preschoolers will be warning their parents to never put it down.

imageDo Not Open This Book, Andy Lee (author), Heath McKenzie (illus.), Lake Press, 2016.

Another fun book of precautions!
Children are so good at falling on deaf ears, rebelling, generally not doing what they’re told! So naturally, this book perfectly taps into the mischievous side of our little, cheeky ones. Television and radio personality, Andy Lee, together with master illustrator of all things comedy, Heath McKenzie, brilliantly entertain with this wise-cracking, hysterical imploration that is sure to leave its readers demanding more.

This character has a problem. The blue, long-legged creature continues to plead with us not to turn the page, and we just can’t help ourselves. So, all kinds of manic mayhem break loose. We get yelled at, lied to, ignored, threatened, begged, bribed and taunted. The enlarged and scattered text work a treat, as do the vivid, overly dramatic illustrations to keep us eagerly engaged in this theatrical pantomime. If you want to know the creature’s logical reasoning behind his lunacy, you’ll have to read the book…or don’t, your choice!

Do Not Open This Book will literally be a hit for pre-and early primary school kids. Extreme in all manners of impolite and inappropriate ways to resolve problems, it’s a fine example of literary perfection in promoting strong values, reading enthusiasm and lots of laugh-out-loud moments. Highly recommended.

imagePenguin Problems, Jory John (author), Lane Smith (illus.), Walker Books UK, 2016.

I love the cynical sarcasm emanating from this book. I love the not-so-likeable-he’s-actually-likeable character grumbling across the pages. That’s what makes this book so endearing. That’s why we are hooked from start to end.

One penguin, who looks and acts the same as every other penguin on the ice, has his own unique and individual perspective of the world. It is one of complete and utter pessimism and apathy. It’s too cold, the ocean is too salty, leopard seals, sharks and orcas want to eat him, he looks silly when he waddles, he is totally confused by the identity of his peers. Until one day, a wise, philosophical, rambling walrus enables the penguin to change his views… for a while.

From two bestselling creators, the text is sharp, witty and full of personality, and the illustrations express the same verve and panache with their speckled texture, cooling tones and diverse perspectives of this busy character.

Penguin Problems allows for a glimpse of optimistic light to shine amongst the gloominess, even if only a glimpse. Preschool and early primary children will find a punch of humour in this book about individuality and enjoying (or not) the simple pleasures in life.

For more great gift ideas check out The Kids’ Reading Guide 2016.

Featured Author – Lane Smith

Lane Smith was born in Oklahoma but moved to California as a child. He studied art at Art Center, College of Design in Pasadena, California, and helped pay his tuition by working as a janitor at Disneyland. Graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in illustration, he moved to New York where he began his life as illustrator, working for several publications including Time, Mother Jones, and Ms.

Lane has both written and illustrated many books but has also collaborated with authors such as the talented Jon Scieszka. The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs are two striking examples of their work.

Lane has worked in other mediums, too. He was an art director for the 1996 movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. He has also worked for Disney and Pixar as a conceptual designer, working on Monsters, Inc. and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Smith’s earlier books include Pinocchio: The Boy (2002), John, Paul, George, and Ben (2006) and his latest include the fabulous It’s a Book and Grandpa Green (a Caldecott Honor Book).

Other books include Madam President (2008), The Big Elephant In The Room (2009) and It’s a Little Book (2011).

Lane is married to book designer Molly Leach, who has designed nearly all of his books. Lane says “When she designed the Stinky Cheese Man back in 1992, folks called it a ‘watershed moment’. Suddenly every designer wanted to make books with crazy type and upside-down pages. The problem is it is very hard to do unless you know how. Molly knows how. She is also very funny and very pretty.”

Lane and Molly live in Connecticut and New York City.

Review – Seen Art?

I am falling head over heels with the work of John Scieszka. Lane Smith’s work is already close to my heart – but combining these two talents into one book (which has thankfully happened on more than one occasion) is true book bliss.

In Seen Art?, Scieszka takes images from the Museum of Modern Art and splashes them throughout a gorgeous landscape book so we can do some seriously drooling (and, of course, so kids can witness the splendour). Trailing us through this collection is a whimsical little character who is looking for . . . well, he’s looking for his friend Art. The only problem is, no one seems to understand what he’s talking about.

‘Have you seen Art?’ he asks a lady walking up Fifth Avenue. But before he can add ‘I was meant to meet him here on the corner of Fifth and Fifty-third’, the lady asks ‘MoMA?’

‘Uh . . . no, he’s just a friend.’ says our art-seeking fellow.

And so begins a series of well-meaning adults, showing our fellow through the kaleidoscope of stunning (and very famous) artworks on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art.

Illustrations by Lane Smith bring this achingly beautiful book to life, and striking typography and design take it to a level above and beyond your average picture book. Children will love the warm humour of the text, the cleverness of the storyline and the fascinating peeks at a beautifully-curated selection of artwork. Adults will just love it all.

Notes on the artwork are provided at the end of the book, as is a gorgeously satisfying story ending. Call me greedy, but it’s a bonus that children will also be entranced by this book. One of my favourites in a very long time and a must for serious collectors.

Seen Art? is published by The Museum of Modern Art/Viking

Review – Grandpa Green

When you spend an inordinate amount of time and energy seeking something out, it somehow becomes more precious, more desirable. Whatever you can’t have, you want more.

For some reason, tracking down a copy of Grandpa Green by one of my favourite authors, Lane Smith, has eluded me for around six months. I’m not sure why. It’s just one of those things. Other people managed – but my efforts kept coming up . . . nada.

Until this past weekend. Stopping off at the little town of Bowral on the way home from the Central Coast, we dropped into a bookstore, and lo and behold – there it was, this leafy green book peeking from the jackets of other books – and yes, I let out a little squeal. Then I clutched that book for dear life all the way to the car, where I slowly opened and absorbed each and every beautiful page . . . pages I had expected to be even more than beautiful.

I wasn’t disappointed.

If there could be a book that would encompass all I love about children’s books, Grandpa Green would be it. The images are stunning – retro in style and quite monochromatic, which I personally adore. The combination of spindly line drawings and leafy topiary creations, plus a never-ending flow on of images from page to page – is just breathtaking.

Then, of course, there’s the story, which is strikingly written, concise and image-driven, as is Smith’s way. The pull between present and past is strongly featured and represented in both image and text – and the emotional punches of a life well-lived are as fragrant and verdant as the images that portray this emotion. Narrating Grandpa’s life is his little grandson, which lends even more beauty and tender connection.

I don’t want to say too much more about this book, because it really is a must-own/read – and you don’t want the content spoiled, but suffice to say this is one of the finest books I’ve read in a very long time. Subtle, tender, beautiful, funny and visually boggling. Keep ’em coming, Mr Smith.

Grandpa Green is published by Roaring Brook Press


Being a book lover, I had been really looking forward to reading It’s A Book and I wasn’t disappointed. Print versus digital is the topic of the moment, and It’s A Book handles this contentious issue in a clever and humorous way.

One of my other favourite topics is cats and from the moment the eyes peered out at me from the cover of There are no cats in this book, I was hooked.

There are no cats in this book was a picture book I knew nothing about but it’s another delightful story for young readers.


Written and illustrated by Lane Smith

In It’s A Book, we meet a monkey with a book and an inquisitive Jackass with an electronic device. The Jackass is mystified by the monkey’s book and asks what it is.

“It’s a book,” replies Monkey.

“Can it text?” Jackass queries.




By the end, the Jackass learns the joys of the printed page (although he still can’t quite grasp how the book “works”).

I loved the text and illustrations in this book but to me it was the subtleties that set it apart. Watching the donkey trying to ‘charge’ the book was very humorous. Lane Smith uses a double page illustration with clocks on the wall and no text to show that the jackass is completely hooked on the book.

Of course it’s how we’d like to see children respond to a book so as well as providing great humour for kids, it also provides satisfaction for adult readers.


Written and illustrated Viviane Schwarz

There are no cats in this book has easy to read text, engaging characters and an interactive and innovative design. And of course, when you open the page, what do you see? A family of cats. So there ARE cats in this book.

I’m not going to tell you why the title is so appropriate, you’ll have to read the book for yourself.

But what I can tell you is that kids will love the humour in it, the simple colour illustrations and the telling detail like the 3D postcard in the book that makes the reader feel as if the characters are really talking to them.

Published by Walker Books, It’s a Book and There are no cats in this book had a completely different but engaging perspective on books. They are picture books to be enjoyed by a variety of ages and my 11 year-old giggled his way through both of them.

The Hedonism of the Digital

This is about the weirdest book trailer I’m come across in a while. For those without the patience or ability to view it, it is the trailer for a kids’ book – It’s A Book! by Lane Smith. The trailer presumably rehashes the story in the book; that is, a tech savvy donkey asking a series of questions of an increasingly frustrated chimp. “Can you scroll down?” asks the donkey. “Can you blog with it?” Inevitably, the donkey ends up playing with the book and is utterly sucked in, sitting and reading it for hours – promising to “charge the battery” when he is done.

Aside from the bizarre irony of a one minute internet book trailer about a book advocating reading paper over ephemeral electronic distractions it’s quite cute. And it underlines one of the things I’ve been banging on about over the last few weeks. The essential nature of reading. I’ve argued before that in order to leap into the digital age, publishers need to be prepared for new kinds of reading – the kind that people do while queueing up to buy a beer, while standing on public transport and while sitting on the toilet. It is a matter of debate whether this kind of reading privileges a certain kind of writing – the easy to pick up and put down, disposable experience. This is what dead tree enthusiasts fear will be lost if paper books go the way of the dinosaur.

These arguments, of course, are not without its advocates. I came across the video above last week, and again, aside from the irony of a TED talk about the perspective of time being summarised in an animated infographic to make it easier to concentrate on, it is fascinating viewing. The premise of the video is this: different people experience time in different ways. Some of us are future oriented, some past and some present. The current crop of electronic distractions, Professor Zimbardo argues, is turning us into a culture of present-oriented people – particularly young men. This has consequences for education, as in order to learn difficult things – like how to read – one must be able to delay gratification: do hard work now in order to fulfil the promise of greater things in the future.

While I disagree more specifically with some of Zimbardo’s points (like the fact that the average teen male has spent 10,000 hours playing video games and is therefore a hedonist without social skills), I find the overall point of this discussion comes with an in-built bias. Let me give you an example – reading. There’s no doubt that Professor Zimbardo has no problem with books and reading – these are part of traditional schooling and presumably all about delaying gratification. But my experience of the kind of wholly absorbing reading depicted in the It’s A Book! trailer above has nothing at all to do with delaying gratification. My most treasured and absorbing reading experiences are completely hedonistic. My experience of time vanishes, and hours go as if they were minutes. This experience has happened to me with reading on and off screen.

While I don’t pretend to know for certain that digital distractions aren’t transforming the newer generations into anti-social sybarites, my feeling is that these arguments come from fear rather than fact. They make emotional arguments using apparently self-evident truths that are anything but self-evident. “Digitally rewiring”, my ass. Just because the youngest generation is demanding that, for example, publishers give them the ability to read books when and where and how they want them does not, ipso facto, mean that they are incapable of being absorbed in the longform experience of reading. Digital is not a synonym for disposable. Sometimes you need to learn to read the signs in a different way.