Not So Scary Picture Books for Halloween

Children love a splash of spook, a gash of ghoul and a dash of danger, but only if it’s laced with humour and courage. If you’re looking for some creepy crawlies, menacing monsters and terrifying trolls to give you the shivers this Halloween, then check out these wild picture books… don’t worry, they’re not actually so scary.

A Monster in my House is written by the internationally acclaimed comedians The Umbilical Brothers, so you know you’re in for an amusing feast rather than a nightmarish one. Their undeniably popular wit is clear with their multi-layered twists that pleasingly surprise. The first-person narration warns of the danger associated with having a different monster in each room of the house. However, upon inspecting the images, Berlin artist Johan Potma has done a brilliant job to capture a mix of the classic, old-style horror with a beautiful warmth and humour that just does the opposite of chilling. He neatly infuses newspaper collage with pencil sketching and oil paint in subdued browns, reds and greens with the loopiest of monster characters you’ve ever seen. And take note of the little mouse in each spread… it holds some very important clues! In a charming rhyming text, the suspense is thrilling, leading us to a conclusion that is totally unexpected.

A Monster in my House is a delightfully playful romp abound with some pretty cool characters that will simply warm your soul.

Penguin Random House, October 2018.

With a nod to the legendary We’re Going a Bear Hunt comes this exasperatingly satisfying Beware the Deep Dark Forest by Sue Whiting and Annie White. Sure, there are creepy bits, with carnivorous plants and venomous snakes and all. But that doesn’t stop Rosie from being the heroine in this suspenseful adventure tale. Braving it out through the sublimely detailed and juicy scenes, the young girl sets off to rescue her pup Tinky through terrifying obstacles, including a bristly wolf, a deep ravine, and an enormous hairy-bellied, muddy troll. But rather than shy away and run like the children did with a certain shiny-eyed, wet-nosed Bear in another story, Rosie stands tall and defiant proving her saviour qualities. Then she can squelch back through the deep and dark and muddy forest back home.

Beware the Deep Dark Forest captures just the right amount of creepiness with the rewarding inclusion of excitement and adventure and a strong female character determined to get her hands dirty and tackle the tough stuff. This is how you face your fears for children from age four.

Walker Books, October 2018.

Following the long-lasting success of The Wrong Book, Nick Bland has come out with this latest cracker, The Unscary Book. It follows a boy, Nicholas Ickle, suitably costumed in an alien / skeleton attire, attempting to introduce us to his ‘scary’ book. So, prepare to be frightened! However, each page turn sends readers into fits of giggles rather than a state of alarm. Poor Nicholas is more terrified at the nice-ness and bright-ness of what is revealed behind all his pre-prepared props. ‘But ice-cream isn’t scary, it’s delicious!’, he shouts. ‘I’m trying to scare people, not make them hungry!’. The brilliantly colourful and energetic (non-scary) book continues to amuse our young audience as Nicholas becomes more frustrated with things that are NOT spooky, terrifying, frightening, or horrifying. And just when you think he’s finally won, well, you’ll just have to read it to find out!

The Unscary Book has plenty of animation and visuals to pore over, as well as fantastic language and comprehension elements to explore. Comedic bliss that all went wrong in just the right way. No preschooler will un-love this one!

Scholastic, September 2018.

Not so much scary, but more like stinky! Which is actually helpful for scaring those unwanted pests away. Tohby Riddle has got this story spot-on with his knack for harnessing the powers of philosophy with humour and an understanding of human complexities – although in the form of bugs and critters. Here Comes Stinkbug! is completely captivating with its brilliantly simplistic plot and dry wit about the unpleasantness of a smelly Stinkbug. None of the other crawlies want to be around Stinkbug because, well, he stinks. They try to raise the matter with him, but that makes him worse. Until he tries to charm the others with a lot of effort. However, it seems Stinkbug has attracted the wrong sort… Maybe it’s best to just be yourself.

The aptly hued garden tones and textures combined with a mixture of typed narrative and handwritten speech bubbles elicit a nature that is both endearingly casual and candid. Here Comes Stinkbug! empowers readers to consider embracing who you are, playing to your strengths and being wary of those who might take advantage of you. Children from age four will find this book utterly and proposterously reeking with the sweetest kind of comedy, bugging their parents for more.

Allen and Unwin, September 2018.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

YA Thrillers: ‘Found’ & ‘After the Lights Go Out’

Fleur Ferris has endorsed Lili Wilkinson’s latest novel After the Lights Go Out (Allen & Unwin) with the words, “A terrifying yet hope-filled story of disaster, deceit, love, sacrifice and survival.” These words could also apply to her new book Found (Penguin Random House Australia). Both Australian YA novels have intriguing titles and are classy examples of thrillers set outside country towns in hidden bunkers. They complement, and could be read alongside, each other.

After the Lights Go Out begins with an absolutely riveting scene where homeschooled Pru and her younger twin sisters Grace and Blythe have to escape from their house on an isolated property on the edge of the desert to a hidden underground bunker. Their father, a mining engineer, built it in secret and named it the Paddock after Winston Churchill’s WWII bunker. We learn quickly that he is paranoid, anticipates secret government conspiracies and that he is a doomsday prepper. This is a training drill.

Later, when the lights go out, the girls know that this is The Big One and they execute their exhaustive training and protocols such as Eat perishables and Exchange worthless currency for supplies. Tension ratchets because Pru is anaphylactic, there has been an explosion at the zinc mine and her father is missing, and the girls aren’t sure whether they should share their supplies with the townspeople of Jubilee.

Bear, Elizabeth’s father in Found is also highly protective and intimidating. He wouldn’t be happy about her kiss with Jonah but he doesn’t witness it – he’s been taken by unknown people in a white van. When her mother realises what has happened she whisks Beth out of town and through a cross-country route along channels across the paddocks to a bunker under a dry dam on their farm. This bunker is made from shipping containers and is as well-equipped as Pru’s. Their flight is also just as original and exciting.

The reason for Beth’s family’s dangerous plight is quickly revealed and the story then steams ahead with help from Jonah (who shares the narration) and Trent, a bad boy who may be trying to reform. The stakes are raised even higher when Beth’s mother is shot.

Both Fleur and Lili describe their very Australian rural settings with authenticity and care. Lili’s diverse characters range from a British Asian church minister to warm-skinned love interest Mateo who has two mums. Found is action-packed and heartbreaking and will be relished by all high school readers who love a fast-paced, filmic read.

Other highly recommended books by these authors include:

Fleur Ferris Risk, Black, Wreck

Lili Wilkinson Green Valentine, The Boundless Sublime, A Pocketful of Eyes

Fatherhood in Picture Books

What does fatherhood mean to you? Is it about the shared moments that make you laugh? Or the ones that incite your curiosity about the world? Is it teaching them a new skill? Or bestowing some secrets about life that you learned along the way? Is it simply being present to watch them grow and succeed? Whatever your definition, there is no doubt that gorgeous picture books can draw out and encourage special bonds in a way that is meaningful to you. Here are a few that do just that…

From Him, To Me, To You. This beautiful book is a lyrical dedication to our littlest loved ones. A book to be shared across the generations. And one that will bring a tear to your eye. Things My Pa Told Me is written with a wise and astute hand by Anthony Bertini, told in a gentle and pertinent manner. Illustrator Jonathan Bentley comes in with an interpretation of his own, brilliantly re-imagining the text to another level of wonder, warmth and adventure. His amazing sketch work creates this extraordinary atmosphere of movement, light and shade, colour and energy that perfectly reflects the perspective of a small child in a big world.

The message imparted is one of strength, support, security and love. Of a father reinforcing his little girl’s journey through childhood – all the growth, fears and challenges and power she is to face. The possibilities that await and the wisdom needed to set her own path. But most importantly, to “enjoy this brief time, just you and me.” One day she will be able to reach, and he (father) will remain in her heart, watching along the way.

Things My Pa Told Me accomplishes a profound and timeless tale of embrace and hope in a way that leaves the reader to their own interpretation and meaning. A stunning book for children from age four to share with their own Pa.

Little Hare Books, August 2018.

The title says it all – bonding with Grandpa, adventure, and the wildest of imaginations. Read on and you’ll find plenty of action, fun and play (including a brilliant play with words!). Grandpa’s Space Adventure is created by such a masterful duo following their Grandpa’s Big Adventure; Paul Newman and Tom Jellett hilariously bring this star-filled adventure rocketing into life.

Grandpa tells his grandson about the time he and dog Rover flew to the moon. He took his ‘launch box’, had ‘high tea’… ‘very high tea’ every day, and even split his side on laughing gas instead of oxygen. He played ‘fetch-the-stick’ with Rover, but it never came back. Joke upon space-themed joke float across the pages paired with Jellett’s characteristically comical cartoons that will literally have your own sides splitting with giggles. Grandpa makes the young narrator feel totally safe in the dark. Now, here’s to another ‘wild’ adventure…

Extremely clever, playful and absolutely cracking with humour, Grandpa’s Space Adventure will leave no space for fear of the dark when you’re sharing this planet-tastic book with your loved ones. For space-travellers aged three and up.

Penguin Random House, July 2018.

The oblivious dad. The one that thinks he knows it all. You know the one! What a glorious day out for Sally and Max in Sara Acton’s Dinosaur Day Out. Dad thinks he’s taking his children on a peaceful day trip to the museum, only to find the dinosaur exhibition is closed. Little does he know that, despite his efforts to treat them instead to a day in the park and a spot of ice cream, Sally and Max in fact encounter all the species of dinosaur listed in Dad’s book. How extraordinary! He’s got his head so engrossed in his ‘Did you know’ facts that he misses every trick, glimpse and illusion that only the children, and us readers, so astutely notice.

The little comical elements in the illustrative details give the text even more irony and humour. And Acton’s softly textured paintings and simple colour palette ensure a gentle and playful feel as opposed to some of those slightly scary dinosaur facts that Dad apprises.

Dinosaur lovers everywhere will adore this whimsical and informative story with all its comedy and adventure. Dinosaur Day Out is the ideal book for preschoolers to share with their ‘know-it-all-not-so-know-it-all’ dads.

Walker Books, September 2018.

This is the perfect guide for new arrivals. If you’ve just landed on this earth, you’ll need this handy manual to ensure you have the best stay possible. Totally brilliant – Welcome; A Guide for New Arrivals by Mo Willems – narrated by parents with wit, verve and unconditional love.

The guide begins with a mirror and a fact sheet on how YOU came into being: a unique combination of LOVE + TIME + LUCK. Filled with a range of enlarged headings, diagrams in the form of signposts, and bright, bold colours, the book humorously outlines a myriad of life’s pleasures and complications. For example, a few upcoming highlights include: Music. “Here is an example of a song” (insert printed music). Cats. “We are pleased to inform you there will be cats… And not just cats. There are Mountains + Friends + Bagels + Infinite Remarkable Things.” Stories. “There are True Stories + Made-Up Stories + Silly Stories.” Each identified by an amusing symbol, and completing the page with ‘while we read this book together.’ There is a guide on ‘We Regret to Inform You’, followed by ‘Rest Assured’. But there is a note for parents to absorb, too. And that is to simply ‘stop’ and ‘be’, because we all know this precious time in our little ones’ lives doesn’t last too long, so enjoy it.

Welcome is a must-have book for every first-time father. Thank you for joining us.

Walker Books UK, July 2018.

Happy Father’s Day!

For more amazing Father’s Day Books for kids check back to read Dimity‘s reviews.

Cosplay & Cinderella in Geekerella

Geekerella by Ashley Poston (Penguin Random House) is a contemporary Cinderella story told by both Danielle (Elle) as the Cinderella character and 18-year-old actor, Darien Freeman as her potential love interest.

Elle’s father had established ExcelsiCon cosplay before he died. Elle now lives with her stepmother, a wedding planner, and stepsister twins Chloe (who is nasty) and Calliope (whose attitude towards Elle may be softening). Elle works part-time at the Magic Pumpkin food truck with Sage, who also makes costumes.

Darien is a former soap actor who is now starring as Prince Carmindor in Starfield, the new movie version of a cult sci-fi show. He is actually a fan of the show and wants to ‘do the fandom justice’ even though Jessica, his female co-star is really only using it for publicity and as a stepping stone to an academy award career. Jess thinks that Daren is cute, ‘equal parts dorky and sexy’. They are supposed to be dating.

Darien wants to do his own stunts, is a ‘pretty boy’ swamped by fans, but is actually vulnerable and a bit shy. His overbearing but distant father is his manager; Gail, is his slightly older, inept but caring minder; and Lonny his new bodyguard.

Without having met him, Elle despises Darien. She doesn’t realise that he is the person who contacted her through the phone she inherited from her father and is now texting constantly. At the same time, her blog posts against Darien playing the role of Carmindor go viral. When they meet in person they despise each other.

The plot builds to the cosplay convention and ExcelsiCon ball. Elle’s parents had been the king and queen of cosplay – her father dressed as the Federation Prince, Carmindor, and her mother as beautiful Amara. Elle decides to attend the ball and Sage alters her father’s costume for her. But Chloe, as ugly-natured stepsister, steps in and steals the Amara silk dress and glass shoes for Cal to wear to the ball and ruins Carmindor’s coat.

Subplots about leaked details about the Starfield movie, Darien’s stalker and interference in Darien and Elle’s texts add intrigue.

This reimagined fairy tale about hidden and mistaken identities is great fun. Its premise of the famous guy yearning for an unknown girl is also explored in the equally engaging Unrequited by Sydney writer Emma Grey about a girl pursued by the famous lead singer in boy band.

Books for Boys with Felice Arena & Tristan Bancks

Felice Arena and Tristan Bancks have both written extremely exciting, atmospheric books for boys this year (and girls like them too).

I’ve interviewed them both for the blog and here are Felice’s replies. (Tristan features in the next post)

You both have distinctive first names. Where are they from?

I was named after my grandfather – a longstanding tradition for many first-born sons in Italian families. Felice is pronounced Feh-LEE-che. Imagine growing up with that name in Country Victoria! Felice actually means ‘happy’ in Italian. And it pretty much reflects who I am – happy by name, happy by nature. My family and friends these days just call me ‘Fleech’ for short. Occasionally I get Felix, which is the English version of Felice (but that just makes me think of the cartoon cat).

Where are you based at the moment?

Melbourne.

You have both written an enviable backlist of books for boys. Could you mention some of these titles? 

The Specky Magee series, Sporty Kids, the Andy Roid series, Whippersnapper, and The Boy and the Spy.

I really enjoyed your gripping books published this year. Could you tell us about them – Felice about The Boy and the Spy and Tristan about The Fall (in the next post)?

The Boy and the Spy is a fast-paced WW2 adventure set in Sicily. A twelve year-old Antonio, an orphaned boy, has a chance meeting with an injured American spy hiding out in a grotto, the story launches into a heart-stopping story with action aplenty. Readers are kept in suspense as Antonio helps the spy evade German soldiers and gangsters, make contact with the Allies, and try to find a way to escape the island alive. An important theme carried throughout the story is the notion of family and how we define it.

What genre are they?

Historical-action novel.

Where are they set and how did you create the sense of place?

Wartime Sicily. My mother comes from that Italian isle and I still have relatives there. I’ve been to Sicily several times so I have a real sense of the terrain, which helped when writing the story. As far as the specific time period goes, that took a little more research, but I was able to consult with some family members to help authenticate the tone and settings in the book, and to capture 1943 in the dialogue, details from everyday life, and conditions related to the war.

How do you hook readers quickly into your story?

I love writing movement and action in my stories. A fast pace from the outset can engage some young reader who might not have the patience or attention span to read a slower unfolding plotline weighted down in meandering development. Adding a little movement with a sense of jeopardy or obstacles to overcome early on in the story is a good way to hook young readers quickly. Once they’ve connected with the characters in this way they’re more willing to pay attention to the deeper undercurrents of the story as they emerge farther along in the narrative.

Who are the major characters and why are they in this predicament?

There’s Antonio, an orphaned boy who is frowned upon and pretty much invisible in his seaside town. WW2 is the backdrop to his story, but for Antonio his daily battle is with prejudice. So when he meets a man who has literally dropped from the sky and talks to him as an equal and is desperate for his help, Antonio’s sees a chance to prove himself and deepen his own sense of self-worth. But with this unlikely alliance comes danger – the man is technically the enemy and Antonio is putting his life at risk to help him.

How is the writing style different from some of your other work?

This book heralds a new writing path for me. I’m known for writing contemporary sports-themed stories, and usually in third person. This book and my next book are written in first person and play out in a specific historical time and setting. I’ve wanted to write in this style for a long time, and I’m happy that it’s resonating with readers.

What do you think about each other’s book?

 I loved it. And I’m not just saying that because I know Tristan. What I admire about Tristan’s writing in this story, The Fall, (and Two Wolves) is that he never talks down to his reader. He doesn’t dumb it down. It’s smart and sharp writing, and it’s visual. I think Tristan and I share a love of cinematic storytelling. We both come from TV/film backgrounds, and I think this definitely comes through in our writing.

These books are both published by Penguin Random House. Do you cross paths because of that? Share editors? Go to meetings together?

We don’t share editors or go to the same meetings but we’ve attended the same events and festivals  – and have also shared the stage. Last year for PRH we gave a reading performance of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox at Federation Square in Melbourne. We’ve talked about doing more events together. 

What other books for boys would you recommend – recent and older?

Anything written by Michael Morpurgo, Neil Gaiman, Frank Cottrell Boyce, John Flanagan, David Almond, Gary Paulsen, Brian Selznick, Morris Gleitzman, Robert Newton, Adrian Beck, and… Tristan Bancks.

What are you writing about now or next?

I’m putting the final touches to another historical action story set in Paris in 1910 called Fearless Frederic. It’s about friendship, adventure, and what it means to have courage. It’s due to be published by Penguin Random House Australia April 2nd 2018.

What is significant to you about meeting your readers – as individuals or in a large group setting?

It’s incredibly significant. There’s no other joy like watching young readers hang onto every word you say as you read aloud to them. I would never pass up the opportunity to help jumpstart a love of reading in our next generation of book lovers. It’s also a chance for me to garner feedback and test out ideas – kids are brutally honest and will let you know if they like something or not.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to say thanks to those who have read any of my books and have reached out to me to say how much they’ve enjoyed them. This means a great deal to me. And if you’re just discovering my books for the first time, I hope you’ll also enjoy them.  Oh, and feel free to let me know over at instagram.com/fleech or www.felicearena.com

Thanks Felice, and all the best with The Boy and the Spy and your other books.

Doodles and Drafts – Jess Black Paws for Thought

Jess Black, author of the new Little Paws series joins us at the draft table today to share her inspiration behind these heartwarming story lines. Puppies, chewed shoes and big responsibilities are all part of training a guide dog puppy. The Little Paws series has them all plus buckets of cute puppy appeal to boot. Here’s what Jess has to say:

Writing the Little Paws series was a very positive experience for me. The story lines are fun, there’s plenty of puppy mischief, it’s a family friendly story line but most importantly the kids in the stories are in charge and at the forefront of the story.

Of course, what’s at the heart of the stories is bringing a gorgeous little puppy into your home and committing to raising it on behalf of guide Dogs. This meant that the series involved my spending lots of time with puppies in training with Guide Dogs Australia, understanding what it takes to be a Guide Dog and the impact that having a dog has on the life of a client. This added depth and meaning to writing the stories.

Continue reading Doodles and Drafts – Jess Black Paws for Thought

Christmas is Coming – Picture Books this Season

What does Christmas mean to you? Is it the sound of excited squeals on Christmas morning? Is it the smell of freshly baked cookies? Is it the sight of twinkling fairy lights around your Christmas tree? Or perhaps that satifying feel of a bloated belly after you’ve tasted every gourmet delight! Here are a few picture books for this coming Christmas to help elicit all those fond memories, create new ones, and enrapture all the senses.  

imageWhat Do You Wish For?, Jane Godwin (author), Anna Walker (illus.), Penguin Random House, 2015.

This one is a little bit special. Perhaps even more so for me because I attended the book launch, and met the superlative duo, Jane Godwin and Anna Walker, whose winning books always put a smile on every face and a glow in every heart. And ‘What Do You Wish For?’ is no different. It’s that all kinds of fuzzy warmth, peace and togetherness that Christmas time really represents. As Jane Godwin said herself, a ‘wish’ signifies more of a statement of fear of loss or of something that will not happen, and her intention for this book is for readers to understand that this time of year is, and should be, one of gratitude.

There is an excited buzz in the air every Christmas. Ruby and her friends always put on a special show in the park, and write a wish to hang on the tree. This year, all the children imagine the most wonderful sentiments, including hopeful dreams of teachers getting married and lego coming to life! But Ruby’s wish is too big to write on a little piece of paper. Her wish is of spirit; it’s made of smells of baking, candlelight amongst the dark, wonderful surprises and quality family time. But most of all, her Christmas wish is one of complete serenity, and a warm sparkle in the sky.   
                                                                                            
imageThe combination of Godwin’s inspiring, tender words, and Anna Walker’s beautifully dreamy illustrations is simply divine. I adore the gentle features and cool colour palette with touches of red, and the intricacy of the individually cut paper, watercolour and print spreads. (See Anna’s process here).

‘What Do You Wish For?’ is the most magical treasure for any young reader and their family to cherish this Christmas.  

imageSanta Claus is Coming to Town, Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots (authors), Nathaniel Eckstrom (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2015.

The Christmas song ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, written by Haven Gillespie and John Frederick Coots became an instant hit in 1934. Still widely played to this day, it is a tune that families know and love. Including a CD track performed by our Aussie talent, Human Nature, and the retro tones and classic-look illustrations by Nathaniel Eckstrom, this is a warm book reminiscent of the good old times, and just being good.

Five cheeky jungle animals are getting ready for Christmas Day. Organising cards and presents for one another isn’t always so simple. Neither is riding their bikes to the jubilee. But if the young ones can remain cool, calm and happy, and remember the all-important event, Santa Claus will come to town and distribute gifts to those most deserving.  

Parents will definitely appreciate this timely reminder to their kids, but particularly will enjoy the lyrical melody and smooth voices of Human Nature. And the humorous, playful illustrations will certainly be absorbed by any preschool-aged child. ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ is a must-have for your stocking this Christmas!  

imageWe’re Going on a Santa Hunt, Laine Mitchell (author), Louis Shea (illus.), Jay Laga’aia (performer), Scholastic Australia, 2015.

A sure-fire way to get kids engaged in a story is to add a dash of jingle, a splash of rhyme and the ‘presence’ of familiarity. In this jolly Christmas adventure, the bonus music CD with the voice of Play School’s Jay Laga’aia, and the structure of Michael Rosen’s ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’, (see similar titles by Laine Mitchell), all mixed with the gaiety of the festive season makes for a guaranteed hit with its readers / listeners.

‘We’re Going on a Santa Hunt’ takes five adorable arctic animals on a mission to deliver their letters to the ‘jolly one’. They bound through dark train tunnels, tinsel and swishing trees, herds of reindeer, the elves workshop, and sooty chimneys, because of course they couldn’t go over or under them! But upon catching a glimpse of the figure in black, white and red, it’s a frantic bolt back through the elements and straight into bed!

Energetic, vivacious, fun and full of thrill, ‘We’re Going on a Santa Hunt’ is a preschooler’s literary and musical delight that is bound to create excitement (and perhaps some havoc) this Christmas time.  

imageChristmas For Greta and Gracie, Yasmeen Ismail (author, illus.), Nosy Crow UK, 2015.

Greta is Gracie’s older (and bigger) bunny sister. She is also extremely chatty, a little bit bossy and a lot impatient. The girls love everything about Christmas, but especially Santa. Gracie is meticulous, quiet and little, but she has a big curiosity. When she asks her sister all about Santa, Greta always has the answer (or so she thinks!). On Christmas Eve, whilst Greta catches zzz’s, Gracie creeps out of the room – slowly, quietly, sneakily. Who does she find busily working in her living room? And how does she silence her normally loud, talkative sister?

I love the casual, quirky feel with its watercolours and rough edges, and the handwritten dialogue in pink and yellow speech bubbles to represent each character. I also love how the language used clearly identifies the ages of these children; being curious in nature, with an element of egocentricity and brutal honesty.

‘Christmas For Greta and Gracie’ is gorgeously engaging, witty and sincere, perfect for young readers from age three. There are clear themes of sibling relationships, self expression, differences and acceptance, all the while including the magic and imagination of Christmas and its related traditions.  

For more great titles to explore this Christmas, check out Boomerang’s Kids’ Reading Guide 2015 – 2016, and Dimity’s Stocking Stuffer Suggestions.