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.

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Chook Doolan is Back

Award-winning author James Roy and talented illustrator Lucinda Gifford are back with another four sensational books in the popular series for junior readers, Chook Doolan. It is a witty and warm-hearted series suited to sensitive young souls navigating their way through challenging feelings of uncertainty and apprehension.

I reviewed two previous titles here (#3 and #4), outlining these creators’ ability to capture the heart, emotion and relatability sublimely to fit their emergent reader audience. Supportive language structures, short chapters and engaging illustrations allow children from age five to achieve success whilst absorbing every moral and humorous fibre of life within the pages.

Early primary-aged readers will relish the joy and culture shining from the pages in Let’s Do Diwali (#5). Venturing into unknown territory with a tradition he doesn’t know and a crowded event is a daunting prospect for timid Chook – aptly nicknamed for his tendency to scare easily.
When paired with the quietly-spoken Praj on a school task, Chook is presented with the opportunity to learn about Diwali. He is, however, apprehensive about attending the Hindu festival of lights, and subsequently performing well on the class talk. But by embracing the spirit of the culture by wearing a kurta, trying the Indian cuisine and engaging the happy crowd, Chook’s feelings of fear dissolve into excitement. He even feels confident at school to deliver his speech about the ‘awesome’ time he had at the Diwali festival.
This is a valuable story about understanding and welcoming other traditions, and overcoming feelings of anxiety with clearly accessible and supportive practices. Let’s Do Diwali is a jubilant celebration to revisit frequently!

On the Road (#6) is about a family trip to Aunty Liz’s home in Mount Frederick. Chook is unsure about spending time with his younger twin girl cousins. He worries about other things, too, like leaving his pets behind, and having to spend three hours in the car with his taunting older brother, Ricky. Luckily, Chook finds a mutual connection with one of the girls, Evie, through his favourite activity of chess.
This book provides a gentle encouragement that shows serendipitous moments can arise in a safe and supportive environment. A little bit of courage to interact with new or unfamiliar people can lead to some wonderful relationships.

In Un-Happy Camper (#7), Simon Henry Doolan; or Chook, expresses a range of emotions from anxiety to frustration to acceptance and relief. Finding out that his class will be attending a school camp, Chook is no more than unenthusiastic. Snakes and getting homesick are not his cup of tea. All he needs is a few gentle pushes from his mum to convince him that it will be alright. This sensitive, persuasive approach and positive attitude helps Chook through his anguish, and he thoroughly enjoys the school camp…even though they didn’t really go anywhere!
The focus on Chook’s feelings throughout his psychological journey is written effectively to help readers understand their own, sometimes mixed, emotions, and finding ways to ease those discomforts. At the same time the story is injected with humour and intuitively sharp black and white illustrations.

In Up and Away (#8), Chook has been given a school assignment to explore a job he might like to pursue as an adult. Naturally, he is drawn to the job of his father – a pilot. But, there are things about being a pilot that are scary, such as visiting new places and meeting new people. In a cleverly fun way, Chook’s dad teaches him a little about the structure and physics of a plane, which is somewhat reassuring. Whilst waiting for his dad in the Club Lounge, Chook is granted an opportunity to quash his own fears, and impart his knowledge, to help another in need.
This book beautifully showcases the fact that ‘ knowledge is power’, and stepping out of your comfort zone leads to a sense of empowerment and personal growth. Once again, relevant, entertaining and encouraging, young readers will delight in this gratifying story of developing independence.

The Chook Doolan series for junior readers, and in particular young boys developing their literacy skills, is absolutely addictive. These stories of overcoming internal struggles and developing self-confidence are highly relatable, uncomplicated and transparent, as well as pleasantly engaging. Five to eight year olds will definitely be clucking for more!

Author James Roy

Illustrator Lucinda Gifford

Walker Books Australia, June 2017.

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The Latest in the Chook Doolan Series

Award-winning author James Roy has successfully developed this series particularly with boys’ literacy development in mind. The Chook Doolan series have been created with a most likeable and relatable character, themes of friendship, family and courage, and plenty of humour and action to captivate its emergent reader audience. With seven or eight short chapters, easy-to-follow language and support structures, and exuberant, witty black and white illustrations by the talented Lucinda Gifford, these books are winners for children aged five and up.

imageSimon, better known as Chook, is not very brave. That is, he is chicken. InChook Doolan Saves the Day’ (Book #3), we are privileged with Chook’s emotional conscience and his honest thoughts towards things such as his dislike for sports. His friend, Joe offers to teach him to play soccer to prepare for their school lessons. But in particular, Chook needs to learn to brave the unyielding stampedes of Ashton Findus and Marty Petrovic. Despite his woeful excuses, a pep talk from big brother Ricky encourages Chook to listen to his angry rooster head-voice (as opposed to his scared chicken head-voice), and he miraculously manages to save the day (the ball, that is!). However, although overcoming this huge battle; both on the field and inside his head, somehow I don’t think Chook Doolan will be changing his reluctant ways any time soon.

imageIn ‘The Tiny Guitar’ (Book #4), Chook’s busker friend, Eddie Two-hats, sits on the same corner every day singing and playing his ukulele. But one day, Eddie Two-hats is taken away by ambulance and Chook is left confused and extremely concerned. To be able to help out his friend, Chook needs to make some money so that Eddie can eat. With his new ukulele gift from Dad, many hours of video instruction and practice, and a whole bunch of courage, Chook delivers the musical busking performance of his life. It may not have been flawless, nor have generated much income, but his efforts proved successful in more ways than one…even if it was only a one-time show.

Young readers will easily identify with the feelings associated with sudden change, being challenged to learn a new skill, and one’s internal insecurities. These books also inject the comically relatable advantages and pitfalls to sibling support (or lack thereof), as well as highlighting the encouraging nature of a good friend.

The Chook Doolan books are complete with a smooth stream of emotional trials, sound messages of compassion, hope and triumph, as well as plenty of winsome humour to capture the hearts of all sensitive souls like Chook.

Walker Books, August 2016.

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Picture Books of Persistence and Problem Solving

When life throws you curve balls, when your path is not always clear, or when things are not in your control. These are the times that test your tenacity, your resilience and your perseverance. Young children are faced with a multitude of situations and obstacles everyday that require smart decision making and problem solving, and these few adorable picture books will no doubt offer some extra pointers on rising up to the challenge.

imageSnail and Turtle Rainy Days, Stephen Michael King (author, illus.), Scholastic Press, July 2106.

We were blessed with the presence of this endearing pair in their previous tale of kindred spirits despite their obvious differences. Stephen Michael King cleverly extends on this sentiment in Snail and Turtle Rainy Days – Turtle kindly takes Snail’s creative preferences into account in his plans to help out his friend.

I just love the essences of reassurance, humour, playfulness and warmth amongst the dreariness of the scene. Just like the rain the words flow rhythmically and soothingly, as well as with great gusto as Turtle busily forges ahead with his plan to coax Snail out of his shell. Meticulously gathering, ripping, bending and chewing, and not forgetting painting of bright blobs and gentle swirls (for Snail), Turtle provides the perfect shelter to share with his favourite companion.

The partnership of the divinely vivid and layered illustrations gorgeously ties together with the purity and fervour of its characters. Children from age three will fall head over shells in love with this charming couple all over again.

imageThe Cat Wants Custard, P.Crumble (author), Lucinda Gifford (illus.), Scholastic Australia, July 2016.

When a cat wants something desperately enough, who or what can get in their way? In The Cat Wants Custard, I’ve never seen a more insistent, yet surprisingly patient despite the prickly attitude, feline on a mission.

Kevin the cat is called by his owner to come for a treat. However, none of the suggestions are much to his liking. Kevin is in the mood for something sweet, and custard is definitely on the table (not literally, it’s still in the fridge). When the cat’s impressively accurate spelling and rhyming knowledge is unfortunately ignored (or misunderstood, rather), Kevin doesn’t give up. He lays in the kitchen for hours for his big opportunity. But when his prize is finally open for the taking, the feisty, custard-craving cat comes to a shocking conclusion.

Kevin’s obnoxious and indignant stream of consciousness, relayed to his readers via thought bubbles, is totally hilarious! And paralleled is Gifford‘s lively, animated and boldly comical illustrations showing the cat’s characteristically accurate body and facial expressions. (My favourite is the death-stare!)

Children from age three will relish every funny thought of this persistent cat and particularly his cat-astrophic, not-so-sweet ending. My three year old is already asking for the ‘mashed potato’ sequel!

imageLittle Koala Lost, Blaze Kwaymullina (author), Jess Racklyeft (illus.), Omnibus Books Scholastic Australia, July 2016.

Absolutely captivating acrylic paint textures and digital collages set the scene in this endearing counting story of a displaced little koala in the Australian bush. We feel for this tiny one as he tirelessly searches for a home and encounters rejection after rejection from the animals he approaches. Two marvellous magpies claim he can’t sing, three tricky turtles state he has no shell to protect himself, four pesky pelicans tell Koala he wouldn’t be able to catch fish without a bill, and so on. But just as he about to give up hope, it is on his tenth meeting that the koala family welcome the little mite into their gum tree home.

The predictive sequential rhythm and use of alliteration in the text by Kwaymullina is beautifully supported by Racklyeft‘s palpable and inviting illustrations, both encouraging eagerness to continue to locate a satisfying resolution.

Little Koala Lost is an adorably engaging and relatable story of belonging and perseverance, with which preschoolers will root for Koala’s wellbeing every step of the way.

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Far Beyond Our Imagination – Picture Book Reviews

Reading is a pleasure that allows for a range of benefits – reinforcing critical literacy skills, fuelling the imagination, inspiring empathy, and for the sheer joy. I chose these picture books with the commonality of the out-of-this-world theme, and I love that each one surprises its readers with elements of humour, compassion, relationships and the unexpected! Books can certainly take you to great heights where you can explore much more than initially meets the eye.

imageSpace Alien at Planet Dad, Lucinda Gifford (author, illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2016.

A powerful story intertwining the fun of space adventure play with the reality of adapting to family changes. Jake always gets a thrill when he visits his Dad’s place (Planet Dad) every Saturday. The bond between them is extraordinary as they act out a series of intergalactic missions, build space stations and enjoy spaghetti and meteorite sauce on movie nights. Jake is no doubt like many kids who receive special quality time with their fun, single dad. But in truth, life doesn’t stay the same forever. When a one-eyed, green Space Alien is suddenly a permanent fixture at Planet Dad, Jake is, as to be expected, furious. The place now has a ‘woman’s touch’ about it, and no amount of invader-blasting, alien-repelling or meteorite-showering action can force her out. Eventually Jake finds things in common with the Space Alien after a trip to the museum and slowly he comes to accept this new presence in their home.

Space Alien at Planet Dad is a super, highly interactive and energetic book that also deals sensitively and cleverly with changes to family dynamics. It allows its young readers, particularly those in blended families, the opportunities to perceive new situations and household members in a different light.

imageOlive the Alien, Katie Saunders (author, illus.), The Five Mile Press, 2015.

Olive the Alien is another story based on the theme of accustomising to new, and strange, beings in the home. Understanding and accepting differences can often be challenging, particularly with no prior knowledge of the subject or their odd behaviour. In this sweet story of a little boy and his ‘alien’ baby sister, Archie eventually realises that her differences are not only endearing, but also that we all have (or had) the same inherent human nature. It’s difficult for Archie to comprehend the antics of his baby sister, Olive. She speaks another language, she cries VERY loudly, she makes a big mess, and she eats the most peculiar things. But worst of all, she makes really disgusting smells. She simply must be an alien!

Olive the Alien, with its beautifully soft, pastel shades and cute illustrations, is a humorous peek into the life of baby behaviour. Preschoolers with younger siblings will most certainly relate, but whether or not they admit to their own once-upon-a-stinky-nappy phase is another story!

imageMilo, a moving story, Tohby Riddle (author, illus.), Allen & Unwin, 2016.

Set in the early 1900s in New York, the story of Milo is certainly one of character, survival and good old-fashioned charm. For an ordinary life, Milo’s world is quite extraordinary, even if he doesn’t know it yet. He enjoys singing classics and playing quaint games with his canine pals, and every other day he delivers parcels within the quirks of the busy city streets. Then one day a blow up with his friend leads to a ghastly storm. Whilst the tumult rages inside his head, Milo and his kennel are also physically swept away to a most remarkable place above the clouds. Upon meeting Carlos, a plain-looking migratory bird, Milo’s mind clears and he comes to realise some important things:
1. The world is big and wide and there are many experiences to be had.
2. The power of friendship is strong and is to be valued.
3. Sometimes it takes an unusual, out-of-this-world adventure to understand and appreciate the little things in life.

Deep and profound on so many levels, Milo, a moving story is undeniably moving. From the intimacy of life in a kennel to the wide landscapes and perspectives, collages and real photographs of various locations. From the simplicity of old fashioned games and songs to the high-rising journey to the sky. The old-style sepia-toned hues contrasting with the mixed media cleverly and interestingly add a humble yet juxtaposed perspective. This book offers great scope for primary school discussions about development over time, on both literal and personal levels.

imageMoon Dance, Jess Black (author), Renée Treml (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2016.

Here’s another book to move you… Moon Dance is an unbelievably charismatic story to get you physically jiving at all times of the day or night. Rather than reaching out to space, in this lyrical fun-fest the moon comes to you. A group of Australian native animals gather together in Eucalypt Gully for a dance under the dazzling, full moon. Gorgeously hysterical terms and rhyming phrases add to the frivolity of the action.
“Wombat starts a conga, He wiggles his caboose!” We’ve got drunken blue-tongue lizards, clapping paws, cicadas on the timbals, a slow-dancing possum with a goanna, and a spry, moonwalking bilby.

Moon Dance celebrates the joys of togetherness and the wonderful benefits of music and dance. The illustrations are whimsical and lively, bursting with exquisite texture, detail and a glorious Australiana feel. This book will light up the night for children from age three.

imageThe Cloudspotter, Tom McLaughlin (author, illus.), Bloomsbury, 2015.

Sometimes we need someone to point us in the right direction… even if it is in plain view. The view Franklin likes to observe is the one in the sky… the clouds. He, alone, has amazing imaginary adventures with the clouds he spots, including swimming with giant jellyfish, driving racing cars and topping tall castle towers. That is why he is known as The Cloudspotter. But one day when a random Scruffy Dog tries to take his clouds, and ‘invade’ his cloud adventures, The Cloudspotter has a plan to rid the bothersome dog… and sends him off into the outer atmosphere. Soon he realises that what he was looking for wasn’t just the clouds, after all.

There is a refreshing illustrative mix of airy skies and bold foregrounds, with lots of visual clues to add depth and meaning. The Cloudspotter is perfect for preschoolers with wide imaginations, and the openness to the possibility of unexpected friendships.

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Picture Books of the Curious Kind

I’m always up for a good imaginative mystery that gets my mind, and heart, racing. It must be that dopamine rush I get when experiencing something novel and exciting, the eager anticipation and engagement, and finding something I can relate to. For kids it would be no different and the following two picture books, not surprisingly, tick all the boxes in the ‘curiosity’ department.

imageArthur and the Curiosity, Lucinda Gifford (author, illus.), The Five Mile Press, 2016.

When adults are oblivious to the hidden secrets and wondrous treasures of the world because they are overly concerned with ‘moving on through’. That’s the situation that Arthur experiences on his school trip to the museum. His teacher takes little notice of the amazing artefacts and ancient wonders as she hauls her class across the landscape pages. But Arthur’s not so heedless. Amongst and within the exhibits Arthur notices a ‘CURIOSITY’ – a mischievous green creature that seems all but a figure of his imagination. Taking his time to examine his surroundings, Arthur gains much more than he bargained for than any of his bustling peers.  The final page leaves us with a sneaking suspicion that Arthur’s excursion has left him with a lasting impression!

imageLucinda Gifford‘s bright and colourful illustrations are playful and eye-catching, allowing readers plenty of scope for discovery and delight as they ‘move on through’ the book at a steady pace. Her text is equally joyful and witty with double meanings that are sure to set tongues wagging with the endless conversational possibilities. The ‘curiosity’ is “…the UNUSUALLY active volcano.” and “…an EXTRAORDINARY mummy in the Ancient Egypt exhibition. Poor Miss Blunkett was trying to wrap things up.”

Arthur and the Curiosity is a fun read to explore and enjoy with its elements of humour and surprise. Children from age three and up will also relish the opportunities to identify with and show ‘curiosity’ towards the diverse characters, topics and experiences that are fostered by this book.

Arthur and the Curiosity is being launched on April 16th at The Little Bookroom. See details here.

imageThe House on the Hill, Kyle Mewburn (author), Sarah Davis (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2016.

‘Curiosity’ can present itself in many forms; and in this book it presents with a thrilling anticipation. Here is a story to send shivers of curiosity up your spine in the hauntingly stunning, The House on the Hill. With high levels of suspense to chill your bones, this poetic spookfest is a winner.

With Mewburn‘s ode to Edgar Allan Poe’s Raven, his romantically suave language and rhythmic canter beautifully rolls off the tongue. Sarah Davis‘s monochromatic, sepia toned imagery marries flawlessly with the spine-tingling lyrics to create an optimal intensity of creepiness and tension.

imageWhen two young ghosts are beckoned by the bell in the house on the hill, they find themselves “Upon the gate a portent hung, a dragon’s claw, a serpent’s tongue.” The initial terror slowly dissipates  with more and more clues being revealed as the characters edge closer to their destination.  Child-friendly hints dubiously lure us towards the dingy dwelling, like dancing moths, jack-o-lanterns and the characters’ outfits that appear distinctly like white sheets with cut-out eye holes. Davis’s striking illustrations with her extreme angles and perspectives, perfectly placed focal objects and effective use of light and shade draw us in with every breath as we follow the ‘ghosts’, and their cat, on their journey through the ‘haunted’ house on the hill. And just when our hearts can’t race any faster, we reach the final reveal and encounter the most ghoulish group of vile creatures – children!

imageIdeal for your Halloween thrills and celebrations, but equally fun-tastic all the year round. Behind the moodiness and apprehension, The House on the Hill takes preschoolers through an adventure of bravery, friendship and togetherness. There is loads of room for educational opportunities with its brilliant use of poetry, vocabulary, visual literacy and the arts.

You can watch the spooktacular book reading with Kyle Mewburn here.

Teaching notes are available at the Scholastic website.

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Double, Double, Toil and Trouble – Picture Books for Halloween

Rather than terrifying the boots off you, these two gentle yet energetic picture books caper around the Halloween spirit whilst addressing themes of responsibility, friendship and teamwork at the same time. A perfect opportunity to share some magic, cheeky giggles and affection with your little ones.  

imageThe Witch’s Britches, P.Crumble (author), Lucinda Gifford (illus.), Scholastic, 2015.  

Raining magical underwear! Giant ice cream cones! Dancing squirrels! Sounds like the perfect concoction for a quirky, spellbinding Halloween story. Here is yet another marvel by classic funny-man, author P.Crumble and the talents of illustrator, Lucinda Gifford.

Chanted in rhyming couplets, the tale tells of the magic that comes from, not a wand, but in fact, britches! The undergarments of pixies, goblins and witches all have spell-casting abilities, but with two rules – don’t lose them, and keep them clean! Young witch Ethel goes to her biggest effort to retain their odour-free, magical freshness. Until one windy day Ethel faces a catastrophe as her britches are stolen by a gust of wind, and cause phenomenal havoc all over the town. Unsuspecting mortals are surprised by their sudden abilities to fly, encounters with abnormally-large babies and dog bones, and unforeseen visits to outer space. The whole park has turned into an exploding, edible and fantastical circus scene! But with the stamp of her foot, Ethel sets the town straight…and finds the perfect way to keep her britches in line, too.

More kooky than spooky, ‘The Witch’s Britches’ is a tale full to the brim with humour, fantasy and adventure. The watercolour and pencil illustrations are bold, vibrant and energetic, with plenty of details to take the reader on the imaginative journey with this diligent little witch.

Lots of fun for preschoolers this Halloween with a simple lesson in being responsible for your belongings!    

imageEmu’s Halloween, Anne Mangan (author), David Cornish (illus.), Angus&Robertson, 2015.  

Emu wants to organise the scariest Halloween party anyone has ever seen. But she doesn’t know how. Luckily her eavesdropping Aussie animal friends have the perfect plan. The hilarious scenes begin as they all roll up to Emu’s place, dressed in the spookiest of outfits the outback has ever seen – a zombie Kangaroo, a floating Tassie Devil angel, the scruffiest Frankenstein Koala, a Red-Back Spider (need I say more?), a ghostly Cockatoo and a frightening Dracula Echindna. But will Emu appreciate their efforts? Of course! That is just the beginning!

A wonderfully creative array of Halloween crafts, decorations, games and nibbles are beautifully integrated to allow readers the tools for setting up a themed party of their own. From paper ghosts to skeletons made from sticks, how to make a witches’ brew, sandwitches and bobbing for apples, the animals celebrate in frighteningly spooktacular style.

Written in rollicking, exuberant rhyme, with illustrations that clearly match the story’s energy and the warmth of this gregarious group. A mixture of pencil and Photoshop, scanned paper and cloth textures add depth, softness and familiarity to the adorable characters and their fun antics.

‘Emu’s Halloween’ is a brilliant read-aloud book for kids (and adults) of all ages that not only outlines the perfect scary Halloween party, but is also is a beautiful reminder of friendship, togetherness, creativity and spirit that can be celebrated at any time of the year.