Striking Out – Picture books that challenge

There are times in every small person’s life, when they are faced with taking the plunge, striding into the unknown, and just striking out into that adventure called life. It’s not always easy, sometimes it’s downright wrenching, but who says it can’t be fun. Here are a cluster of recently released picture books that will enlighten and inspire in those darker and daring times.

CrustsCrusts by Danny Parker Illustrated by Matt Ottley

I adore the sinuous artistry of this incredible picture book team. A picture book with their names on the cover promises great subtlety and infinite pleasure. Crusts is no exception. One third graphic, two thirds regular, this picture book grabs the most frustrating habit a maker-of-lunchbox-lunches has to contend with – the uneaten crust and flips it on its head.

Jacob is your typical crust-eating refusal expert. His mum is your typical eat-your-crusts enforcer. Neither is willing to give any ground, which is unfortunate because in a galaxy far far away, a tiny planet is crumbling into nonexistence and has had to jettison three explorers to Earth in an attempt to locate and transport planet-saving crusts back to them. At first, it seems the mission is doomed to fail as Jacob squirrels away crusts by the bin load and scribbles away at plans the explorers feel are useless to their cause. Turns out, there is more to Jacob’s distaste in crumbs and ingenuity than meets the eye.

Parker’s narrative is always spot on, poetic and soulful. Ottley’s fanciful illustrations strike the perfect balance between droll fantasy and tragic normality. Crusts is a crowd pleaser even for those unwilling to swallow one physically. It accentuates the values of tenacity, humanity, selflessness, and kindness and comes highly recommended for lovers of invention and space travel.

Little Hare Books imprint HGE August 2016

Zelda's Big AdventureZelda’s Big Adventure by Marie Alafaci Illustrated by Shane McG0wan

I love the plucky audacity and determination shown by Zelda the chook. Zelda has a dream, ‘to be the first chook in space.’ However, the road to the Milky Way is long and arduous and none of her coop-mates is willing to lift a primary wing feather to help her achieve her ambitions.

Undaunted, she strikes out alone and finally launches herself into chook history. When she eventually comes home, her fickle-feathered friends agree Zelda’s tenacity and drive are by far the best examples of how to get anywhere interesting they’ve ever encountered. With her appetite for space exploration sated, Zelda concedes adventures are always more fun when shared with friends. This is a fun, easy to read, easy to share picture book encouraging perseverance and courage. Great for pre-schoolers and early primary readers and chook lovers like me.

Allen & Unwin 2016

Up up and AwayUp, Up and Away by Tom McLaughlin

Like his previous titles, The Story Machine and The Cloudspotter, Up, Up and Away warms the very cockles of your heart and is guaranteed to cheer you. Unlike Zelda who travelled far into space to find her first planet, Orson, a boy who loves to make things, prefers the challenge of making his own. And he does.

At first, the new planet is slow to find its position in Orson’s universe but slowly with a lot of tending loving care from Orson, his planet grows up and even develops its own gravitational pull. That is when Orson realises, that he must let his beloved planet find its true place among the stars. Under five year olds will relate to this on a number of levels; pets growing up, butterflies dying, outgrown shoes and so on. Adults will be reminded that one day their own tiny planets will eventually have to orbit elsewhere, too.

This whimsical picture book describes the sometimes unavoidable necessity of letting go of things you love the most in order to set them free. McLaughlin elevates this difficult life lesson to a place of beautiful reason and logic in spite of the nonsensical notion of mixing up a planet from scratch from ‘a cup full of rocks and a dash of water’.

Powerful and smart, Up, Up and Away is about accepting and recognising challenges and change.

Bloomsbury August 2016

OutOut by Angela May George Illustrated by Owen Swan

Sometimes taking on new challenges is not always a matter of choice. Out is a stunning debut picture book by George, which tackles the unrelenting struggles of refugees and their emigration attempts. We never learn the real name of the young asylum seeker in this story, but she is recognisable as a girl with much heart and soul and deep pools of courage. Together with her mother, they endure a treacherous journey from their homeland to Australia. Life is very different, and it takes a while for them to assimilate to the music, dancing, and language. Everything is a new challenge for she and her mother and yet throughout their ordeals, she always retains the thinnest, most fragile tendrils of hope, as depicted by a bright yellow ribbon she carries everywhere.

Written with frank solemnity Out resonates with positivity and a belief that good will always prevail. Swan’s gentle muted illustrations convey emotion and compassion and allow the characters of the story to stand out when they are surrounded by so many others that are in exactly the same boat as they, as it were.

Persuasive and compelling, Out will suit readers four and above and help them realise the strength of the human spirit whilst appreciating the various paths they can take (or must make at times) to reach their goals.

Scholastic Press June 2016

 

 

 

Review – Teacup

TeacupI want to frame this picture book and hang it on my wall. To label Teacup as having bucket-loads of appeal for audiences familiar with and sympathetic to displacement, migration, social disruption and family change strips away the myriad of other sophisticated, elegant qualities this book deserves to be described by. It is simply sublime.

Teacup by Rebecca Young and Matt Ottley is a timeless story of a boy fleeing his home to ‘find another’. We know not where from nor why but immediately warm to his story after learning that amongst the meagre possessions he takes with him is a teacup which holds some earth from where he used to play.

Teacup illo spreadUnlike any other creature on earth, the need to retain ones past in order to make ones way better into the future is strongest in we mere humans, especially in times of dramatic change. Therefore, the boy sets off across seas sometimes kind and friendly, other times wild and testing. Along the way he has time to contemplate all that he has left behind; his home, his sense of place, his beloved family and the naivety of childhood. The clouds that swirl above him may not be permanent but his memories remain secure as does his hope, until one day that hope takes root in the form of a sapling apple tree.

This symbolic tree of life sustains him until the day his is able to build his life anew; older, wiser, a better receptacle for change, just like his teacup.

RY-001The beauty of this story is its incredible scope. It could be describing loss or the dislocation of refugees. Others will interpret it as a story of a search for love and belonging. Whatever journey Teacup takes you on, Young’s eloquent use of words and symbolic imagery massage your emotions to the point of quiet reverence. The narrative bobs gently upon these thematic eddies, always moving forward, into the unknown.

Matt OttleyEven more arresting than the text are Ottley’s illustrations. More like a collection of fine art, they are jaw-drop beautiful, each a breathtaking portrait of the boy’s journey. Dense in texture and meaning, Ottley’s illustrations reflect sky and sea, at once both soothing and uplifting.

Teacup is a picture book to treasure for its undiluted beauty and the subtle way it transcends moralising on human rights and condition, thus making it an important and exquisite reading experience for youngsters aged four and above.

Potential award winner.

Scholastic Press April 2014

The People Smuggler

The People SmugglerHistory is written by the victors, or so the saying goes, so it’s rare but eye-opening to read the version written by those not celebrating the spoils. And none are more eye-opening than the memoir of convicted people smuggler Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oskar Schindler of Asia’, which shows ‘queue-jumping boat people’ and the people who smuggle them in a light that differs vastly from that cast by our popular vote-seeking politicians.

Written by Sydney filmmaker Robin de Crespigny over three years and myriad hours of interviewing Ali (I’m going with ‘Ali’ because I’m unsure whether to use ‘Al Jenabi’ or just ‘Jenabi’ and don’t want to cause offence), The People Smuggler is written in an imperfect but credible first person. It’s as if Ali himself, who only recently learnt English, is telling the tale.

It’s a smart decision because it both makes your connection to the tale more personal and intense and because, well, it helps you realise that such incredible awfulness not only happened, it happened to one person.

Sigh.

The People Smuggler is a fabulous, must-read book, but I won’t deny that it made me simultaneously heart-swellingly impressed at the triumph of the human spirit to keep getting up when it’s being nothing but repeatedly steamrolled and despondent at the horror the human race deliberately, unconscionably inflicts on itself.

Ali’s tale begins with his happy childhood in Iraq, which changes forever when at school he accidentally blurts out a phrase his father says in the privacy of their home: ‘Saddam is a bastard.’ His father disappears the very next day, and thus begins the family’s plunge into the murky world of incarceration, torture, mental health issues, and near starvation.

As the oldest son, but still a young child, Ali is nonetheless tasked with rescuing the family. This continues for the next 20 (or more) years, as he first earns them money at the markets, then graduates to working at a tailor’s, and later gathering intelligence for the resistance movement. In between, he himself is repeatedly captured, locked up, and tortured in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, emerging as one of its few survivors.

In danger, on the run, and with his family too in mortal danger, Ali is forced to leave Iraq. The journey beyond is equally harrowing as the homeland horrors he’s attempting to flee. Call me naïve, but I was shocked at how hard it was to leave or stay anywhere. Ali’s refugee journey didn’t involve a relatively linear leaving of Iraq, arriving in one or two places, then landing in Indonesia as a gateway to Australia.

Instead, his escapes were repeatedly thwarted and he was forced to double back or was captured and repatriated to the places from which he’d come, let down by those who and those organisations which were supposed to help, before desperation forced him forward again.

How many times can one person survive this? I kept wondering. That one person has even one of these things much less all of them, happen to them seems utterly unfair. Which is how Ali came to be in Indonesia, ahead of his under-threat family, under threat himself, penniless, and desperate to bring them to safety.

Double crossed on top of being double crossed on top of being double crossed, Ali is cheated more than once out of his scrounged money and promised safe passages to Australia. Which is how he comes to be a people smuggler—one with a conscience. By controlling the process, he reasons, can put his family on a boat to Australia.

The People Smuggler pieces together the events and terror that force people to take their chances on rickety boats. It fleshes out and humanises the people the politicians would rather we didn’t identify with and that the 30-second sound bites cannot ever capture.

It forces us to re-think the government’s ‘children overboard’ scapegoating version of events, the actual ways to ‘stop the boats’ that significantly differ from politicians’ postured but ultimately empty promises. It highlights the farcical and inhumane systems we have in place for processing—or not processing, as the case often seems to be—refugees we turn into detainees.

Ali sums up the situation well:

This is the first time I have heard of queue-jumping. I try to imagine this queue. What do they think? That when the secret police are shooting at you, you run down the street yelling, ‘Where’s the queue? Where’s the queue?’

He also writes:

It is unclear why Australians are so strangely concerned about asylum seeks arriving by airplane; maybe because there’re no pictures in the paper or on TV. But they are so afraid of the two percent who come by boat that they lock them up like criminals. As with the Jews in World War II, the refugees’ pitiful plight inspires irrational fear. If Australian people only knew the strength it takes to get on one of these boats, to keep holding onto life after the horrors these people have been through, they would be filled with awe and admiration.

That’s exactly what I’m filled with after reading The People Smuggler. I have a good mind to post copies to our not-so-esteemed ‘leaders’, especially the blustering, ‘I’ll stop the boats’ one who has a penchant for wearing budgie smugglers.