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.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Taking Action – Fun Books to Get Kids Moving

The beauty of children’s books is that they lend themselves to so many further experiences beyond the reading of the words. These three books contain just the right mix of language and animation to have you and your little ones practicing a few moves of your own.  

imagePuddles are for Jumping, Kylie Dunstan (author, illus.), Windy Hollow Books, 2015.  

The first thing you’ll notice upon picking up this book are the awesome illustrations. Each spread is entirely created with bright, cut and pasted paper characters and scenes in primary colours, suiting its wet weather theme and straightforward storyline.

Kylie Dunstan cleverly takes her early primary-aged audience on this rainy adventure through the park, market, the neighbourhood and back home again to bed, simply by stating the actions in the words and demonstrating them in the pictures. Written in present tense, the short sentences are relatable and encourage young readers to focus on how different objects can be utilised in the most enjoyable way possible.

“Bottoms are for wriggling, Sisters are for laughing!” /
“Beds are for BOUNCING, Books are for sharing”.

‘Puddles are for Jumping’ is both visually and actively entertaining. This truly playful and joyous book is perfect for promoting experiences in the creative arts and movement areas, as well as supporting themes of friendship and citizenship.  

imageConga Dance, Amanda Tarlau (author), Jane Chapman (illus.), Koala Books, 2015.

Another book to get you on your feet is ‘Conga Dance’. As the title suggests, this euphoric story sashays from start to end with a toe-tapping, bounding, shaking and strutting line up of Aussie animals, progressively joining in the dance. I love how the language matches each of the characters’ traits and encourages dramatic play.

“Wombat’s next, whiskers shaking” /
“Cockatoo struts and squawks with laughter.”

Emu leads the rhythmic chant with six lively friends following on, until…someone gets in the way!
To match the rollicking, rhyming verse, the watercolour illustrations are gorgeously textured, soft and expressive, perfectly representing the warm and jovial atmosphere of these adorable, fun-loving creatures in the Australian bush.

‘Conga Dance’ exudes warmth, excitement and a totally care-free attitude that will have preschoolers shuffling, bopping and giggling along in repeated succession.  

imageOnce I Heard a Little Wombat, Renée Treml (author, illus.), Random House, 2015.

Inspired by the classic 19th century nursery rhyme ‘Once I Saw a Little Bird’ is Renée Treml‘s adorable Australian version, ‘Once I Heard a Little Wombat’.

This particularly sweet board book for toddlers is a beautiful read aloud story that will no doubt have your little one joining in the action. Cleverly interactive, the tale talks in first person, immediately connecting the reader with the audience. And it’s only at the very end that the mystery of the narrator is revealed. Great for fostering prediction skills!  

Energetic rhyme and repetitive verbs in clumps of three hook the listener in for the ride as an array of animals display their typical behavioural characteristics. Sugar gliders bump and jump, bilbies scratch, snatch and hop, and puggles splish, splash and plop. Attempts are made to convince each one to stay and play, but the little creatures have their own agendas. Until a little stomping wombat comes around and is ready to play and romp, and then it is time for the pair to stop and flop together for a nap. But who is this mystery animal friend? Read it to find out!

In her characteristically unique and stunning style, Renée Treml‘s artwork is soothing, yet playful with her adorable black and white scratch-art fauna, each assigned a different pastel-coloured background.

‘Once I Heard a Little Wombat’ is a delightful board book of perfect size and shape for little hands. With its exhibition of charming Australian animals and their habitats this lively romp has great learning potential, and is the perfect excuse for repeated read-alongs and role play action for all its early childhood readers.

Give Daddy a Cuddle – Picture Books for Father’s Day

We’ve seen some wildly adventurous and hilarious new release picture books available for Father’s Day, now it’s time to celebrate with some more tender, but just as lively, titles that will melt your heart with their precious innocence and charm.  

imageDaddy, You’re Awesome, Laine Mitchell (author), Renée Treml (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2015.

It’s the simple things that make Daddy awesome. Spending time together chasing a ball, swinging on the swing, looking up at the stars and sharing tickles are the kinds of memories children will treasure most. Laine Mitchell follows on from her Mother’s Day beauty, ‘Mummy, You’re Special To Me’ with this ‘awesomely’ imaginative rhyming gift to Dads this Father’s Day.
Here is another joyous collection of amazing animal parents, this time with fathers doing fatherly things. Plenty of action and adventure, building, exploring, camping and creating marvellous inventions, and always completing the verse with the phrase ‘Daddy, you’re awesome to me.’ But of course, no loving story about the paternal bonds between parent and child can end without an affectionate kiss and snuggle to soothe little ones after such a busy day.
With the characteristically stunning trademark style of Renée Treml‘s scratch art, vivid colours and simply adorable hand-drawn creatures, ‘Daddy, You’re Awesome’ oozes warmth, fun and adoration for those special people in our lives.  

imageDaddy Cuddle, Kate Mayes (author), Sara Acton (illus.), ABC Books, 2015.

Little Bunny wakes even before the crack of dawn (sounds familiar!) to the sound of the milkman’s truck. To Bunny, it’s time to get up and play. In cute, toddler two-word sentences, Bunny attempts to wake Daddy by any means. ‘Daddy ball?’, ‘Daddy bike?’, ‘Daddy kite?’. Bunny raids the house offering toys and accessories to a blissfully unaware, snoring Daddy, until enough is enough. In an oh-so-sweet ending Bunny is finally treated to a storytime snuggle and cuddle that sends them both back into a cosy slumber.
I love Kate Mayes‘ gorgeously simple text that will appeal to toddlers’ vocabulary and cheeky natures. And beautifully complimented is Sara Acton‘s energetic and adorable line and watercolour sketches on white backgrounds, making ‘Daddy Cuddle’ the perfect book for little ones (and their dads) to relate to the mischievous actions of this Bunny on a mission.    

imageDaddies Are Great!, Meredith Costain (author), Polona Lovsin (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2015 (first published by Koala Books in 2013 as Daddies Are Lovely).

Daddies are there to make you feel safe, loved, cherished, proud and adventurous. And don’t dogs make you feel these things, too? That’s why this next book contains the ideal combination for tugging on our heartstrings.
It’s a book full of doggy daddy deliciousness, with its tongue-panting kisses, tail-wagging games, romping, rolling and digging goodness. You’ll also find caring poodles and border collies who soothe pups to sleep, boxers that raise a helping paw, and cavaliers and chihuahuas inviting close affection.
The illustrations are fantastically realistic and playful, beautifully supporting Costain‘s gentle rhyming text with its sweet ode to the fun and protecting fathers out there.
‘Daddies Are Great!’ exudes devotion and induces intimacy in this book of unconditional love and special relationships.  

Wishing all Daddies, Granddaddies and other special people a sweet and snuggly Father’s Day with your loved ones!

Renée Treml Reveals Answers About Her Picture Book, ‘The Great Garden Mystery’

meRenée Treml is a talented artist and author, originally from the States, now residing in Melbourne. She creates her stunning illustrations primarily using the scratchboard technique, setting her work apart with its unique qualities. Her artwork can also be seen at design markets and art exhibits through a range of gorgeous products. Renée has three equally delightful picture books published with Random House Australia; One Very Tired Wombat, Colour for Curlews, and her most recent, The Great Garden Mystery.  

Review – The Great Garden Mystery
thegreatgardenmystery9780857984166Those curious curlews are back, and already set on the trail to solving a most mysterious problem. A menagerie of suspects are called to order. Who is stealing all the beetroots? What a conundrum!

In playful rhyming prose, Renée Treml and her exquisitely drawn animals take us on a journey to decipher each clue as they add up to solve the case.

First, hare finds a sign. It’s a poo that is square. Clearly, he is not guilty. As they discover a hole under the fence, some snagged fur, a wide trail, and a dislike to beetroots, each animal gleefully asserts their innocence. But when the roo bounds away, humorously, those suspicious creatures believe the puzzle has been pieced together.

And when all is calm and quiet, in the dark of night, who emerges to fill his belly once more? Who could have guessed? Think back to the first clue and you will have your culprit!

I love the playfulness and adventure of The Great Garden Mystery, as well as Renée’s black and white scratchboard drawings against the soft, pastel background colours. Kids from aged three will delight in this curiously intriguing animal tale, too.  

I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn about Renée Treml’s fascinating journey to creating her books, including her joys and challenges with illustrating The Great Garden Mystery.  

Your books all include a common theme featuring the adorable, sleepy wombat, a range of native birds and other creatures. What is the appeal of these Australian animals?  
I grew up in the States where I commonly saw little songbirds, woodpeckers, squirrels and deer – animals which probably sound very interesting to someone who is not from North America.  When we moved to Australia at the end of 2007, I was immediately smitten with the wildlife – here we have huge noisy parrots, sleepy koalas hiding in gum trees, teeny little pademelons and big bouncy kangaroos.    
The wombat that is featured in all of my stories is based on the very first wombat I ever encountered.  He was at a wildlife sanctuary in Brisbane and managed to sleep soundly despite being surrounded by noisy children, adults, cockatoos and kookaburras. Every time I went to visit the sanctuary, that wombat was having a good snooze.  I only wish I could sleep like that too.    

What do you love about creating children’s books?  
For many years I was unknowingly creating characters through my artwork – I kept drawing the same animals over and over and discovering their unique personalities.  When I wrote my first story it felt like I was rewarding my favourite characters.  It was so much fun.  I still maintain a sketchbook full of (mostly) patient characters that are waiting for their turn in a story.  

You have a unique, beautiful style of illustrating. How did you develop your style?  
Thank you, but I think it is fair to say that my style found me.  My style developed from practicing, experimenting and attempting to master new mediums and subjects. Over the years my style has evolved into what it is now, but I am always looking out for new ideas, subjects and materials so I can continue growing and changing.    

What is your favourite medium to use?  
I love working with inks and paint on clayboard, although lately I have been trying to bring mixed media and collage into my illustrations.      

Who is your favourite artist/s?
Sorry – I can’t just pick one and if I tried to make a list I would worry and fret for ages trying to narrow down the list.    

the great garden mystery koalaWhat was your favourite part of The Great Garden Mystery to illustrate?  
My favourite scene to illustrate is where koala accuses the fox of stealing the beetroots.  I loved that koala – he was so sassy and never once thought he could be a suspect.  Trying to capture his brashness, the fox’s slyness and the roo’s discomfort was just good fun.  

What was the hardest part?  
To be honest, this book was a hard one to illustrate. This is the first time I have worked digitally to create my illustrations.  I had to teach myself how to make my digital artwork look indistinguishable from my scratchboard illustrations – that was so hard!  Also, drawing the garden without cluttering up the compositions and illustrations, proved to be a very big challenge for me.  Thankfully, I have wonderful editors, publishers and very honest friends who had excellent suggestions all along the way.  

What was the reason for the change in your process from the last two books?  
I created all of the illustrations for my first two books using clayboard. Clayboard is a masonite board that has been coated with a thin layer of clay. They are beautiful to work on, but only come in limited sizes, are a lot more expensive than paper or canvas, and aren’t really reusable (unless you paint over them completely). I squeezed as many drawings as I could onto each board, then sent the very heavy box to my publisher for scanning. A month later I received the digital images, which then required cutting and pasting each illustration back into my page spread. Working on clayboard added at least 2 months to our timeline and in the end was not the most environmentally friendly process.
I still prefer to work on clayboard when I’m creating art for galleries or shows, but for books digital scratchboard has its benefits:
(1) I can create artwork that looks very similar to my scratchboard drawings; (2) we skip the shipping, scanning and editing phase, which saves 1-2 months; and (3) I can add or change things quite easily, even after we are theoretically finished the book.  

How long did the process take you to complete all the illustrations for The Great Garden Mystery?  
Working part-time, the illustration part probably added up to about 3 months. I had a huge learning curve trying to master the software and we also experimented a lot with different styles. I am so happy with how it turned out that I have almost forgotten how hard it was to illustrate!  

renee treml owlWhich animal is your favourite to draw? Why?  
I am totally obsessed with owls – they have so much personality.  I am just waiting for the inspiration to strike for an owl story…    

What special message do you want your readers to take away from The Great Garden Mystery?  
As a scientist and wildlife lover, I would love kids (and adults) to become aware of all the clues animals leave behind.  Take the time to look at the ground for broken eggshells, scat or footprints – you might find yourself a little mystery (even in the city).      

What was the highlight for you in 2014?  
The highlights for me this year were the TGGM-events where everyone got to try their hand at scratchboard and we got to talk a lot about wombat poo.    

Are there any special milestones or events that you are looking forward to in 2015?
This year I am really looking forward to organizing a few primary school-visits. I love teaching and interacting with children and have some fun writing and illustrating workshops to present.  

Thank you so much for answering my questions for Boomerang Books, Renée!
Thank you for the opportunity!

Enjoy Renée’s stunning website at:
http://www.reneesartwork.com
http://www.facebook.com/ReneeTremlAuthorIllustrator

Interview by Romi Sharp
http://www.romisharp.wordpress.com
http://www.facebook.com/mylittlestorycorner
http://www.twitter.com/mylilstorycrner