Leaving the Nest – Back to School Picture Books

Reaching a new milestone is one that comes with excitement, pride, aspirations and sometimes, trepidation. We’ve already been through the first year of school experience (with another waiting in the wings), but even so, starting afresh has its own set of rewards and challenges. From learning a whole new routine, to meeting new friends and setting new goals. Here are a few picture books that are sure to help your kidlets relate (and ease their minds) to what’s in store for their year/s ahead.

imageMy First Day at School, Rosie Smith (author), Bruce Whatley (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2016.

“To all the mums and dads. It will be OK!”

Aptly dedicated to those nerve-racked, first-time school parents, experts Rosie Smith and Bruce Whatley send a most encouraging message from the outset. Then, warmly greeted by a little yellow duckling the first day routine begins.

Each turn of the page introduces us to another adorable creature as s/he embarks on an independent journey to life as a student. And no matter how complex the task might seem, such as a caterpillar dressing each of its many, many legs or a pig attempting to eat from an upturned bowl on its head, they are all completely doable.

Written in first person and with minimal text, both words and illustrations work beautifully together to showcase the variety of experiences yet keeping it simple and focussed at the same time. Soothing pastel coloured backgrounds allow the characters’ personalities and humorous antics to pop and burst in this utterly joyous and memorable occasion.

‘My First Day at School’ is the perfect companion that works in partnership with parents and children to successfully accomplish what may feel like a daunting experience. Children between 3 and 6 will fall head over heels in love with this fun, exuberant and relatable story about a typical school day.

imageBe Brave, Pink Piglet!, Phil Cummings (author), Sarah Davis (illus.), Lothian Children’s Books, 2015.

Setting off into unfamiliar territory, so to speak, definitely takes a lot of courage. For Pink Piglet, this is certainly true. When mother pig gives her babe the all-clear to expand on his horizons, he is less than confident. Poor Pink Piglet encounters some frighteningly large and noisy animals on his way around the farmyard. But his resilience and frolicsome nature prevail. Covered in brown worms in muck, red squished berries and green squelchy pond weed, the bedraggled-looking piglet is the scariest sight for sore eyes as he heads back home. Well, all the farm animals think so… except for his mum, of course.

The illustrations are beautifully textured and layered with a mix of oils on canvas and digital media in soft, pastel-coloured hues. The expressions and energy emanating from the pictures perfectly compliment the jolly onomatopoeia and animal sound effects.

‘Be Brave, Pink Piglet’ is a spirited read aloud story wonderfully capturing a serendipitous moment of bravery and playfulness. Another relevant read for your little school starter – your own ‘brave explorer’.

Watch Phil Cumming’s special video message to school starters here.

imageWhen I Grow Up, Andrew Daddo (author), Jonathan Bentley (illus.), ABC Books, 2015.

Capturing our attention from first glance is ‘When I Grow Up’ by much-loved duo, Andrew Daddo and Jonathan Bentley (Check on Me and First Day). With its scattered assortment of occupational items on the cover and bright neon colours upon entering the book, you know this story will be full of diversity and effervescence.

It’s not only children with aspirations for a glowing future. Adults, too can take inspiration to making their dreams come true. The teacher, as the role model, opens the story with the projection that she’d like to be the school principal. Then she facilitates open minds with the question, “What do you want to be?” Throughout the story, several children stand up and with the most imaginative and optimistic of responses as they proclaim their future desires. From a hair-raising hairdresser to a whizz-bang, supersonic-robotic inventor, an alien-photographing astronaut, writer of the most epic of stories, and an all-round stage performer. But in a tidy conclusion we learn, yes, we can be a multitude of things, but most importantly we should just be ourselves.

Whether realistic or far-fetched, the concepts and language are age-appropriate with an element of humour that kids will enjoy. Visually this book is captivating as the text weaves in and around the bold and colourful illustrations. Each spread captures that enthusiasm with its pictures that fill the page and extra hidden details to explore.

‘When I Grow Up’ will take children (and adults) from age four to big places, and all it takes is the power of imagination to turn dreams into realities. It is also a useful resource for learning about different jobs and their roles.

Double Dipping – Picture book therapy

When medical conditions affect children or the people in their lives, one of the most daunting aspects of their situation is how to cope. The management of a disease or disability is one thing, the understanding why they have it and why others react the way they do is another.

Emily Eases her WheezesPicture books are marvellous non-invasive ways of presenting expositional information on a variety of tricky-to-handle topics in relatable formats for young readers. Here are two hot-off-the press releases that tackle two such ailments yet are still stories of substance and integrity.

Emily Eases her Wheezes by Katrina Roe and Leigh Hedstrom, is a delightful tale about a very energetic elephant, Emily. Always full of energy, Emily loves to scooter, leap, and twirl. Unfortunately, Emily suffers from asthma as approximately 1 in 10 Australian children do.

Being unable to play with her friends and live the active lifestyle she craves frustrates Emily to the point where she is willing to risk wheezes and coughs just to have fun. Such behaviour results in her relying on her puffer more and more until she is relegated to remaining quiet in her room. Her friends are slow to appreciate that ‘you can’t catch asthma’ but miss her friendship so much that they use their 21st century-Generation Z data-retrieving smarts and soon discover an activity they can all do…swimming.

Emily Wheezes illo spreadAs Emily’s lungs grow stronger so too does her chance to race with her team in the summer swimming carnival. Will this plucky little heroin keep her wheezes under control long enough to win the day?

Emily Eases her Wheezes is a delicately sobering tale about a condition with which many younger readers will resonnate. Roe’s crisp contemporary narrative couples easily with Hedstrom’s big bold illustrations. I found the epilogue-style overview of asthma in children at the end of the book interesting as well.

Asthma is a disease I’ve been aware of since childhood, however I can honestly say, this is one of the first books I’ve encountered that has presented its manifestation and control in children in such a clear, simple and entertaining fashion. Well done.

Wombat Books Rhiza Press June 2015

Newspaper Hats Newspaper Hats by Phil Cummings and Owen Swan is an incredibly intelligent and beautifully sensitive look at a family dealing with the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease.

Georgie visits her grandpa’s nursing home regularly with her father. But rather than it being an ominous outing to a place she is fearful of, Georgie looks forward to arriving at the sky-blue door because it is a room ‘full of sunshine’ with stacks of old newspapers as tall as city buildings; her grandpa’s world.

However, Grandpa is becoming more and more vague and forgetful. Georgie is desperate to know if her remembers her, but repeated enquires are met with far away recollections of his youth. With child-like innocence and gentle tenacity, she tries to connect with him through these memories and the photographs on his dresser until, by chance she discovers a simple act that unites not only the rest of the nursing home community but also, the relationship between she and Grandpa.

Cummings’ unrushed narrative pulses gently with visceral images, doors that slide open like curtains; thunderclouds that taste like dust; they leave your heart swooning with emotion until the very last word.

Through using the simple joy of making paper hats and the subtle historical connection to memory with noteworthy newspaper headlines of the 20th century, Newspaper Hats unfolds into a powerful yet immensely touching story of what binds a family together.

Swan’s watercolour and pencil on paper artwork is subdued and mindful of the weightiness of the subject matter lurking just below the surface of the text. It is neither grim nor foreboding, rather the illustrations float across the pages with infinite optimism like a paper hat carried away on the breeze.

Phil Cummings BooksA beautiful book on many levels from a potent teller of poignant tales and my pick for pre-schoolers as a catalyst for caring, sharing, and understanding.

Scholastic Press July 2015

 

Picture Books to Celebrate the ANZAC Centenary

In just a couple of days we commemorate the legacy of the brave soldiers and the tragic events of World War 1 that occurred one hundred years ago. A beautiful selection of ANZAC books for children have been reviewed by Dimity here, but here’s a few more that certainly captured my heart with their touching themes of heroism, love and dedication.  

9781921720628Once a Shepherd, Glenda Millard (author), Phil Lesnie (illus.), Walker Books, 2014.

Gorgeous in its lyrical prose. Devastatingly provocative. Stunning imagery. ‘Once a Shepherd’ is a war story of love and loss, sure to break its readers’ hearts.
It tells of a young shepherd, living amongst a backdrop of emerald green beauty. “Once Tom’s world was all at peace.” He marries his sweetheart, and all the world seems right. Until he is called to war and he bids farewell to his wife and unborn child. A stranger veteran calls upon Tom’s home once the war had ended, only to share the shattering news of his heroic fall with a now grieving widow. Of the hand-stitched coat she once darned, now a new toy lamb is mended for Tom Shepherd’s baby boy. And the world is at peace once again.
‘Once a Shepherd’, with its carefully crafted verse and exquisite watercolour images of greens and browns, is a powerful, moving tale of the heartbreaking reality of war and the inherent hope for peace.
Prized Notable Picture Book of the Year in the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 2015 Awards.  

9781921977718Midnight: The story of a light horse, Mark Greenwood (author), Frané Lessac (illus.), Walker Books, 2014.

A foal born at midnight; black as coal, eyes glimmering in the moonlight. She is Midnight, the Australian Light Horse trained by Lieutenant Guy Haydon and gracious in her charge in the last great cavalry.
The first port of call for the soldiers is four months in the trenches at Gallipoli without their horses. Reuniting once again in Cairo, the relationship is further bonded as the pair endure the harsh conditions of the heat, scarce water supply and flying shrapnel. But still, soldier and mare commit to their duties, and to one another. In a devasting final battalion (Beersheba, August 1917), riders tumble and horses fall. Guy and Midnight are both struck; a heartbreaking yet poignant moment as the pair share their last breath side by side.
The succinctness of the text reads almost poetically, and the continual references to the affectionate bond between Guy and his beloved Midnight make this war story more of a tender account of their time on the battlefield. The gouache illustrations by Frané Lessac compliment Greenwood’s evocative words and capture the starkness of each war scene.
With notes referencing background information on the Light Horse and the details of Beersheba, ‘Midnight’ makes for a terrific resource for studying the war, as well being as a heartrending tale of love and dedication.    

9781742833477Anzac Biscuits, Phil Cummings (author), Owen Swan (illus.), Scholastic Press, 2013.

This book is probably my favourite of the Anzac stories. ‘Anzac Biscuits’ poses a lovely contrast between a child’s warm and safe home, and her father battling the cold and dangerous conditions out in the trenches.
Rachel and her mother spend time together baking Anzac biscuits. As pots and pans bang and crash to the floor, the soldier lays low as shots bang around him. As Rachel sprinkles oats like snowflakes, the soldier turns his back to the bitter cold. The little girl loves the smell of burning red gum in her stove, but the soldier will never forget the choking gun smoke drifting across the fields. Despite the treachery that the soldier has faced, we are given a heartwarming ending we can cherish; the soldier – Rachel’s father – loved the biscuits made just for him.
An endearing story of affection, commitment and sacrifice, with equally warm and gentle illustrations, ‘Anzac Biscuits’ is a beautiful way to introduce the topic of wartime to young children. They will also find little clues in the pictures upon revisiting the book, which make for wonderful discussions about what life was like for both the soldiers and their families at home (and the significance of anzac biscuits).  
Prized Notable Picture Book of the Year in the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 2014 Awards.
 
resized_9781743317235_224_297_FitSquareI Was Only Nineteen, John Schumann (text), Craig Smith (illus.), Allen & Unwin, 2014.

The words versing the iconic song about the Vietnam War, ‘I Was Only Nineteen’ tells of the devasting loss, sacrifice and emotional impact an elderly man is reliving of his time as a teenager at war.
We travel with this veteran from the moment he set sail, to inhabiting a firey, orange scrub, battling for hours and weeks amongst bullets and grenades and watching mates hit by the blasts. No-one told him about the mud, blood, tears, rashes and chills that would haunt him until he was old.
These memories of the war, through these unforgettable words, have been beautifully illustrated by Craig Smith, rendering warmth and respecting the spirit of our soldiers – the fallen and the survivors. I love the clever connection between the past recount and the present with a touch of army green evident in each scene showing the veteran and his grandson.
‘I Was Only Nineteen’ is a poignant rendition of a groundbreaking song by John Schumann, with great historical significance and plenty of scope for wartime study.
Prized Notable Picture Book of the Year in the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 2015 Awards.

LEST WE FORGET

Lest we forget – ANZAC children’s book reviews

And the Band Played Waltzing MatildaA couple of months ago I revisited an iconic song by Eric Bogle, finding new breath in Bruce Whatley’s picture book, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda. Bogle found the words and Whatley the images that profoundly capture all the raw emotion, loss and resilience that epitomises the Great War of 100 years ago.

This collection of titles does the same. All commemorate actual events of WWI. Many embrace the incredible ANZAC legacy. Each is a significant work of art and testimony to real-life heroes who gave their youth, their souls, and tragically, their lives in the quest to protect sovereignty and country.ANZAC Ted Hero Plain as Day

‘Not everyone wins medals, some heroes never do’, but this small collection deserves your attention as absolutely as those we’ll be commemorating during the 100th year Anniversary of World War One (and the Centenary of the Landing of Gallipoli this year). Because they should be remembered.

Ride Ricardo RideAs the war first erupted in Europe, so we begin with the picture book, Ride, Ricardo, Ride! by Phil Cummings and Shane Devries. A young Italian boy’s love for riding his bike under the clear quiet skies of his village is shattered when the shadows of war appear. Devries’ splendid illustrations saturate the pages of Cummings haunting tale of human endurance. Evoking eloquence and beauty out of destruction and despair.

Omnibus Books March 2015

1915Mid-primary reader series, Australia’s Great War landed last year with Sophie Masson’s, 1914 and is followed this year by Sally Murphy’s, 1915. Each honour events specific to that time in history in spirited, easy to read novels that unite an absorbing mosaic of factual occurrences with engaging fictional characters typical of that era. Thoroughly engrossing with further releases due each year until 1918, this series provides an awesome framework for primary students to become intimately acquainted with the machinations and characters of the First World War.

Scholastic Press 1914 – 1918

the-last-anzacOur oldest living ANZAC, Alec Campbell may no longer be able to march but the true-life story of his meeting with a young boy a year before his death is perceptively depicted in Gordon Winch’s picture book, The Last ANZAC. Alec ‘the kid’ Campbell’s encounter with James, is faithfully portrayed with the help of Harriet Bailey’s expressive illustrations, alternating back and forth from the deserts of Cairo and trenches of Gallipoli to present day suburbia. Ideal for the expanding minds of 5 – 7 year-old history scholars. Visit Romi’s full review, here.

New Frontier Publishing March 2015

ANZAC Ted and Belinda ANZAC Ted is the debut picture book of author illustrator, Belinda Landsberry and encompasses two of my great loves: teddy bears and beautiful picture books for kids.

Landsberry uses gorgeous water coloured illustrations to complement a gently rhyming tale of a little boy’s beloved toy. But, Ted is a teddy bear of rather diminished appeal having survived the ANZAC campaign with the little boy’s digger grandfather. Worn, torn, and scary looking, he may score zero cute and cuddly points in the Toy Show at school but he is and was the unsung hero and much cherished mascot of the Gallipoli diggers who more than earns a place in this little boy’s heart. ANZAC Ted gets my vote too. Perfect for reading aloud with someone you cherish or soaking up the atmospheric sepia illustrations alone.

EK Books 2014

The ANZAC PuppyThe Anzacs of course included the New Zealander’s so it is only fitting that popular Kiwi author, Peter Millet and illustrator Trish Bowles are able to share their remarkable picture book story based on another real life war hero, Freda.

The ANZAC Puppy is a tender rendition of the interwoven lives of Lucy, WWI solider, Sam and Freda, a harlequin Great Dane puppy who grew into a loyal and much loved good-luck mascot of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade 5th Battalion. Sam’s tale brought tears to my eyes and will warm the cockles of your heart. It parallels ANZAC Ted in many ways thanks to the stirring sensitivity the creators use to express these tales of nostalgia. My primary-schooler is always a bit dubious about reading ‘another wartime story’. Thankfully, picture books like ANZAC Ted and The ANZAC Puppy have assured her that not all conflict ends in tears and heartache.

Scholastic NZ Mach 2014

My GallipoliThe majority of these Anzac tales will suit primary aged readers. My Gallipoli by Ruth Starke and Robert Hannaford is an exceptional picture book with more sweeping appeal.

This phenomenal, clothbound presentation marries fictional characters with direct accounts in an epistolary chronological description of the months immediately before the first landing at ANZAC Cove to the Allied retreat in 1915, then onto to present day commemoration ceremonies.

Starke is genius at capturing the moment even if it did take place a hundred years ago. She masterfully connects the reader to all those touched by the doomed campaign to capture the Dardanelles: the diggers, their families, the Turkish countrymen, the nurses, the COs and, the war correspondents. First person recollections plunge us into their places of battle and pain with powerful precision. Hannaford’s  fine charcoal, watercolour, and gauche portraits anchor their thoughts with tangible identities.

My Gallipoli reaffirms the futility of war but also underlines the courage, the tenacity and the hope that were crucial to the survival of thousands of men (and women) at that time.Each page, each Gallipoli recollection is a complete superb story unto itself.

My Gallipoli is a picture book of substantial implications for students of history and art and a glorious record of our inglorious past. My pick for in depth and animated Centenary discussion.

Working Tile Press March 2015

 

 

Review – Night Watch

Night WatchWho hasn’t watched an African wildlife documentary and not been enthralled by the lives of the majestic beasts that roam within? I may be easily amused but their appearances and antics still impress me, as does Phil Cummings’ and Janine Dawson’s latest offering, Night Watch.

Our African stars are Giraffe, Elephant, Hippo, and Baboon. They are neighbours, living side by side around the lake, getting on with their everyday lives but rarely exchanging more than a passing nod or ‘gruff grunt’ with each other; a modern predicament in today’s high density living society.

One day though, danger comes ‘prowling…creeping…stalking…sneaking’; Lion is on the hunt.

The animals rally nervously together and thanks to an ingenious idea of Baboon’s (being smarter than he looks) they hatch a shrewd plan and form a vigilant night watch. Lion is out-witted and frightened senseless by their deviousness. From then on, it’s business as usual, each resuming their insular coexistence by the lake, but no longer afraid of the night or what it could bring.

Phil CummingsThis likeable picture book touches on the importance of cooperation, teamwork, survival (of the cleverest) and the value of friendship with bucket-loads of charm and wit.

Phil Cummings pleasing rhythmic text pulses with humour and sound and stands up to repeated readings. But it is Janine Dawson’s gorgeous watercolour illustrations which convincingly convey the verve of the African savannah for me. They radiate the naivety, ingenuity and vulnerability of the characters with a sunny vibrancy sure to charm the pants of young readers.Janine Dawson

Working Title Press suggests this picture book provides plenty of potential for imaginative interaction, activities and kinetic play for children from 3 – 6 years of age. I am inclined to agree. But of course, if you are partial to safaris through the wilds of Africa, it’s worth a look too. Because you never know when you’ll need to outsmart a marauding lion do you?

Working Title Press April 2013