Great Gift Ideas – Entertaining Picture Books

There is no denying it – the countdown is on. We’ve got you covered for Christmas, though. Discover the fantastic array of kids’ stories between these covers. Every week until Christmas, I’ll be listing a selection of new releases and top-rate reads for children from pre-schoolers to new young adults. Here’s a swag of super entertaining picture books just right for sharing this summer.

The First Adventures of Princess Peony by Nette Hilton and Lucinda Gifford

I detest the colour pink and princesses who like to adorn themselves in it. However, I LOVED this supremely funny tale about a little girl named Peony who lives in a castle with her dragon, pink bits and all. Beautifully told from Peony’s unabashed point of view and illustrated with striking tri-coloured drawings, this is a joyful read about giant imaginations, dogs, family and princesses, of course. Highly recommended for pre-schoolers, early primary schoolers, emergent readers and those of us struggling to accept the little princess within. Watch out for following titles in this illustrated series.

Read Joy Lawn’s full review, here. It’s a corker.

Walker Books Australia October 2018

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Unforgettable Children’s Books

With so many memorable children’s books flooding our bookshelves, it’s easy to allow one title to melt imperceptibly into the next. This collection of stories however possesses qualities that make them virtually unforgettable. Embrace these haunting experiences that will linger with you long after the final page.

Parvana: A Graphic Novel by Deborah Ellis

This graphic novel rendition of Ellis’ acclaimed novel, The Breadwinner (US name of Parvana), moved me to tears. Emotionally charged and visually gratifying, this graphic novel ignites a need to know more and venture further.

I have not read The Breadwinner yet but was so enamoured by this portrayal of Parvana’s story that I am now compelled to do so. There is a movie rendition too although I may not have to see it. This sombre tale about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to make a living in the stricken city of Kabul to support her family and reconnect with her imprisoned father is so convincingly expressed through Elllis’ stirring narrative and dramatic artwork (from which this version was adapted) that it leaves nothing wanting apart from a desire for Parvana’s salvation.

The muted colour palette of dusty browns and ominous greys belie the hope that blossoms below the veneer of fear and repression. Orange flowers (the colour of hope) appear in many of the frames featuring Parvana and most strikingly, on the last page where they are seen springing from the crust of the desert. Parvana’s vibrant red blouse, the one she has never worn, representing hope and love, and a desire to be free of fear, is the catalyst for change.

Dramatic, poignant and inexplicably beautiful, like Afghanistan’s people, this story is itself complete and will appeal to many even those (children) who are unaware of the historic atrocities leading up to Parvana’s story. Especially useful for those resistant to learning about history and reading full scale novels.

Allen & Unwin Children’s Books January 2018

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Stories for the Soul – Picture Books that Tug the Heart – Part 2

Here are a few more stories with heart that encompass the three pillars of great picture books: to enlighten, educate and entertain.

Finn’s Feather by Rachel Noble and Zoey Abbott

It’s wrenching when something or someone you love is lost. No one knows this better than Rachel Noble who was inspired to write Finn’s Feather after the loss of her son, Hamish. However if you think this story is a maudlin narrative on grief and loss, think again.

Finn’s Feather embraces all the love and joy families share for one another. It is a sublime examination of the emotions of heartache, anguish and sorrow expressed through the eyes of a child, which makes it immediately relatable and real. When a parent carries the burden of grief, children often slump along beside them under the same weight but unsure of why they are even there. The way they might experience the loss (of a sibling) understandably has to be different from the despair their parents are experiencing. This is precisely what Finn is going through after he discovers a pristine white feather on his doorstep one morning.

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Review – Lenny’s Book of Everything

I remember when I was a pre-schooler, the day our World Book Encyclopedia and Childcraft How and Why Library sets arrived. They lived in their own custom-built bookshelf and went with us whenever we moved house. I was contemplating selling them this year to free up space or failing that, surrendering them to the compost heap. Now, after spending time with Lenny and Davey, I’m not so sure. Like their Burrell’s Build-It-At-Home Encyclopedia, each lettered volume holds countless childhood memories anchored in place by facts and figures now hopelessly out of date but somehow still completely valid. How does one discard their former life – a childhood of countless special moments and first-time discoveries – so decidedly?

Moreover, how does one describe Lenny’s story. Wrenching (you will need tissues – preferably 3 ply), soaring (pack your wings), absorbing (allow for a few sleepless nights spent page turning), tragic (get another box of nose-wipes just in case).

Lenny’s Book of Everything is a story with a heart as big as Phar Lap’s and gallops along at a pace that both rips you apart emotionally but is simultaneously restorative and mindful such is Karen Foxlee’s talent for powerful story telling. This story describes the relationship between Lenny, her younger brother who has a rare form of gigantism and their beleaguered mother. Theirs appears a drab ‘moon-rock’ coloured existence yet flashes of brilliance strike everywhere, everyday: their mother’s pink work uniform, the pigeons on their windowsill, Mrs Gaspar’s outrageous beehive, the ubiquitous letters from Martha Brent and of course, her regular dispatch of encyclopedic issues to them. All conspire to create warmth and hope and put the reader at ease while sweeping them ever closer to the inevitable conclusion.

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Stories for the Soul – Picture Books that Tug at the Heart Part 1

There’s a fair chance that issue-based picture books are going to tug your heartstrings and touch your soul purely because they dare to devote themselves to issues that matter to you, the reader. You should never be frightened of feeling, nor should you be wary of exposing your child to feelings. Even if your child has not yet experienced a similar situation, sharing stories with soul is a key way to introduce them to the myriad of emotions and circumstances that make up their world. These next few picture books are prime examples.

Lily’s Balloon by Katrina Roe and Helene Magisson

Lily is disappointed and overwhelmed by a day out at the fair that is until she finds something that makes her feel ‘quiet on the inside’, an ivory coloured balloon. This balloon calms and heartens her but she accidentally lets it out of her grasp at the park. It soars towards the clouds leaving Lily behind.

Tom, fledging photographer, happens upon the balloon as it drifts across the park’s lake and it becomes one of his favourite shots. However, the balloon dances on until it snags in the branches of Amelia’s garden. After she sets it free, her heart soars with it.

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Review: Sweet Adversity

Assimilating history into a palatable, meaningful tale for today’s children is no easy thing. Get it wrong and you risk children shunning not only a potentially great read, but learning about periods of our past that explain the character of our future as a people and a nation. A situation of unquestionable adversity, yet adversity has many advantages – ‘sweet are the uses of adversity’ after all. Get it right, and children will embrace history with gusto and every ounce of the here and now vigour that defines childhood.

Sheryl Gwyther’s ability to immerse young readers into worlds of yesteryear with such a clear strong presence of today is exemplary. Her narrative slides along as alluringly as a sweet mountain brook, mesmerizing readers with plenty of action and emotion. Sweet Adversity is exactly the type of book my 12-year-old-self would have lapped up with unbridled zeal, especially as it acquaints children with the wondrous words of Shakespeare, some of which adult readers will connect with of course, but which provide a beautiful rich new seam of learning for tweens.

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Keeping the Faith – Junior Novel to YA reviews

Believing in yourself when all else around you is in a state of upset and confusion is an emotion children are more than capable of recognising. Keeping the faith when adrift in turbulent seas is not only testing and difficult at times, it also determines your future perspectives on life. These next few books that touch on the importance of keeping the faith in dire times provide intense and touching lifelines to children (and adults) of all ages.

Leave Taking by Lorraine Marwood

Marwood is more than adept at distilling emotions into moving verse novels. Attaching emotion and memories to physical things is something humans are adept at, as well. This story deftly portrays a young boy’s heart-felt attempt to retain and simultaneously farewell everything he holds dear in his life as he and his family prepare to sell up and leave their family farm.

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Reluctant Heroes – Junior Novels That Conquer Doubt

Being the leader of the pack is not a role everyone relishes, especially if you are that shy kid who never kicks a goal or that odd sounding, looking kid whose school lunches never quite fit the norm. However it is often the most reluctant heroes that make the biggest impact and save the day. Being at odds with yourself and your perceived persona is the theme of these books, so beautifully summarised in their paradoxical titles. What I love about these two authors is their inherent ability to commentate messages of significant social weight with supreme wit and humor. It’s like feeding kids sausage rolls made of brussel sprouts.

Natural Born Leader Loser by Oliver Phommavanh

Raymond is stuck in a school with a reputation grubbier than a two-year-old’s left hand and choked with bullies. The best way he knows of fighting these realities is not to fight at all. Raymond is king of fading into the background especially when it comes to his friendship with best mate, Zain Afrani.

Zain is a soccer nut and self-confessed extrovert whom has a deep affinity for Raymond. He likes to flash his brash approach to bullying about much to the consternation of Raymond who happily gives up the spotlight to Zain whenever he’s around. Constant self-depreciation just about convinces Raymond that he’ll never amount to anything of much significance, which he is sort of all right with until their new principal blows his social-circumvention cover by appointing him as one of the new school prefects.

Raymond is as shocked as the rest of the school but reluctantly assumes the role along with a kooky cast of radically differing kids. Under the calm, consistent leadership of Raymond, this eclectic team not only manages to drag Barryjong Primary School out of its bad-rep quagmire by winning the hearts and minds of the students and faculty alike but while doing so, raises enough money for new air conditioners for every classroom.

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Applauding Individuality – Picture Books that Celebrate Being Different

Young children don’t always notice differences in people, at least not in the passively aggressive way some adults are inclined to do. Sadly, the recognition of characteristics dissimilar to their own either physical or behavioural is largely a mindset learned from their environment. Picture books like these do a tremendous job of challenging erroneous mindsets and applauding individuality. They are charming and direct, yet subtle and entertaining enough to read repeatedly.

Along Came A Different by Tom McLaughlin

Dramatically different (pardon the pun) from anything else McLaughlin has produced before, this avant-garde picture book cleverly combines colour recognition (with emphasis on the primary colours), geometry and social acceptance all in one neat entertaining package. Several groups of differents converge into one community space but despise one another because reds, blues and yellows just don’t match. Rules are established and boundaries are enforced. Life is tense and restrictive. Until one day, quite unexpectedly, a really different different comes along, radically altering their perceptions and igniting a massive appreciation of how being different is actually better. Friendship prevails and happiness blooms.

This story told in few words and bold striking characters, relays a simple premise of live and let love. It suggests to children that you can be any shape, size, or colour and still have a voice. You can like any type of music and have friends who love oranges even if you do not. You are unique and therefore amazing. It’s that simple. A modern day classic that welcomes differences and embraces change. Magnificent. Timely. Recommended.

Bloomsbury Children’s Books May 2018

My Storee by Paul Russell and Aska

Australian NAPLAN advocates turn away now for this tremendous picture book blithely ignores language conventions and unapologetically dismisses sticklers for rules. I love how it also challenges every spell check on the planet.

Derived from the author’s own experience with dyslexia, My Storee is a beautifully refreshing expose of encouraging creativity for creativity’s sake by forsaking the bounds of perfect spelling and correctness; paradigms that can severely road block learning and advancement for a person afflicted with dyslexia.

A young boy is a master storyteller but is afraid to let his dragons loose at school for fear of grammatical reprimand. That is until a teacher with extreme foresight, long hair and very loud shirts breezes into his life and gives him permission to be who he is and shine. Thank you Mr Watson.

Full marks for this book, which screams thinking outside of the box, applauds alternative teaching approaches and champions creative verve to the nth degree. I love it, every word and every ridiculously bold bright illustration. Viva la Mr Watsons, wherever you are out there. We need more like you. My Storee is concrete reinforcement of embracing who you are and all that you have, or have not, with verve and positivity.

EK Books August 2018

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Be Brave – Picture Books that Celebrate Overcoming Doubts

Being brave, is less about being courageous and more about ignoring your fear because you simply cannot afford to waste any more time on it. Overcoming doubts and anxieties is something children face every day. Picture books like these encourage a heightened awareness of one’s own feelings and capabilities and in doing so banish fears and promote determination.

Where’s Bear? by Sarah Elliott Smyth and Nicky Johnston

Sophie represents a whole playground of children who spiral into anguish after they lose a precious toy, or in their eyes, a stalwart playmate. When Bear goes missing, Sophie embarks on an apprehension-filled journey in search of him that will have little ones perched on the edge of their seats. Thankfully, the cute ending reunites and delights. Johnston’s winsome illustrations elevate this heart-warming story of facing your fears and tenacity to the next level. Utterly endearing, this story will warm the cockles of your heart and encourage very young children to ‘never stop hoping’.

Empowering Resources February 2018

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Lest We Forget – New Picture Books

The amount of empathetic, engaging titles that surface each year to commemorate ANZAC Day never fails to impress me. Touching, sympathetic stories like those below permit young children to open their hearts and minds to the true essence of courage and sacrifice, allowing them to connect with a history that for the sake of humanity, we should never forget. There is a huge number of praise-worthy picture books to share with your youngsters this ANZAC Day. Here are a few newer titles that are also excellent for classroom inclusive discussion.

Message In A Sock by Kaye Ballie and Narelda Joy

Thousands of care packages were sent to our Aussie Diggers during the Great War of 1914. Dozens upon dozens of hand-knitted socks made up a part of these packs not only providing warmth and comfort for ‘war-weary feet inside heavy boots’ but reminding our troops that their loved ones at home were thinking of them.

Tammy learns how to knit socks to send overseas. She tucks special messages into the toe of each sock for the soldiers to find. One message, written especially for her Daddy serving at the warfront, returns with a reply from Lance Corporal A McDougall who was the recipient of her heartfelt gift. His reply connects her with her father, fills her with pride and instills a hope that someday soon he will return safely to her.

This story highlights the female wartime effort in the most glorious and tender way. Baillie’s narrative is affectionate and informative; addressing younger audiences in a way that is both direct and appealing given that many of them might struggle to understand the concept of caring for others in such an express, person-to-person way. Joy’s collage inspired illustrations are a mosaic of love and charm, layered with texture and colour so persuasive and rich, you’ll want to reach out and stroke each golden strand of Tammy’s hair. It’s this depth of sensory allure that draws you back to this story again and again, making it the perfect book to honour the centenary of the end of WWI. A must share.

MidnightSun Publishing 25 April 2018

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Turn Back Time – Middle Grade Magic

If you could turn back time, erase your mistakes, remember what you did with your car keys or even better, find those missing precious memories and loved ones, would you? These two middle grade novels explore the premise of losing someone inexplicably and the emotions produced through relentless searching for those missing loved ones.

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

The IBBY International Children’s Book Day logo, ‘The small is big in a book’ certainly chimes true for A Wrinkle in Time. That it has stood the test of time is testament to this tale (first published in 1963), which I had never read as a child. If I had, I might not have recognised it as a bewitching hybrid of sci-fi, adventure, fantasy, and dystopia. For those living in another dimension like me or have not seen the movie yet, A Wrinkle in Time is a story of discovery and tenacity. It also (re)defines the power of friendship and love.

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Secrets and Small Places – Sensational MG and YA reads

Being a Piscean, secrets and small spaces do not faze me much. I’m one of those little fishes who loves a bit of enigmatic seclusion and the stimulation of guesswork, which is why I absolutely, nuts and crackers enjoyed the following titles. Each possesses a fluidity of story and cast of characters so cleverly crafted, I felt like I was sharing their experience as if it were my own. These books take you in deep, which for me makes them terrifically satisfying and just a little be frightening – in a can’t-get-enough-of-way.

Middle Grade Fiction

The Secrets We Keep and The Secrets We Share by Nova Weetman

Fire – both compelling and repelling. Catastrophic and cleansing. This sums up the sweep of emotions and characters Weetman explores with Clem Timmins. Clem’s secret begins with a flicker but soon ignites into something she struggles to contain upon losing everything after her house burns down – her clothes, her treasures and her mum. Timmins and her pre-pubescent peers totter on the edge of change with remarkable poise and a raw, heart-wrenching genuineness that will bring the sting of tears to your eyes and a smile to your lips. They clutch at various emotional straws, each wanting happy outcomes but in Clem’s case, too frightened of losing even more, thus retreating into secrecy. This is good old honest storytelling, where enigmatic poignancy tempers robust reality.

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Toot Toot! Picture Books that make you Hoot!

It’s been bubbling within me for a couple of years now…the need to express a story about – yes, wait for it…flatulence. Undeniable perennial favourites with kids, stories the make you hoot and toot are not only fun to write but as it turns out, more prevalent than I first thought. There is an intoxicating number of farting picture books blowing about now. Here are a couple of fresh offerings too funny to pass up. I’ve included a couple of non-farting titles too for the more musically, less peristaltically motivated.

No One Likes a Fart by Zoe Foster Blake and Adam Nickel

Fart slipped out one day, unnoticed and unseen, but super keen to absorb everything about his new home. Trouble is, wherever he wafts, he encounters people reacting badly to some very reprehensible odours. Fart floats on, anxious to get as far away as possible from those dreadful smells, blissfully unaware that it might be him causing those noxious stinks. As Fart wafts around the neighbourhood, he is overjoyed by his surroundings and grateful to be alive. Just one thing would make him happier, a friend. All hope of finding a new best friend is shattered though, just like Fart’s heart, when he realises with a shock that the disgusting, horrible, terrible smell is him.  Alone and crestfallen, Fart finally chances upon the friend he’s always wanted, someone who appreciates him for exactly what he is.

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Mind Provoking Prose – MG and YA Reads for the Venturesome

If the prospect of bored minds and restless spirits daunts you, consider these literary excursions for your middle grade and YA readers. Not only are they mind provoking and incisive, they offer experiences for the venturesome reader to revere and ruminate over long after they’ve read the last page.

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

This is a brave story set in Australia in the not-too-distant future with global implications. Peony lives with her sister and aging grandfather on a fruit farm. Her chief aspiration is to be a Bee – the bravest, most nimble of farm workers who flit from tree to tree pollinating flowers by hand. If this concept sounds slightly askew, it’ll be one you are thoroughly comfortable with by the time you’ve experienced MacDibble’s palpably natural, narrative. Could this be the end of the world as we know it or, as I’d rather believe, just another notable chapter in the history of humans being humans – badly.

Whatever your take on climate change and the way we treat the planet, How to Bee, never wallows in despair or hindsight and neither does Peony who positively radiates tenacity, kindness and sass so loudly, her voice really will be resounding long after you read the last page. When  Peony is taken from her home by a mother who aspires for more than just the meagre country existence the rest of her family and friends endure, her brassy drive and cast-iron determination draw her right back to the home she loves, like a bee to its hive. But not before she spreads a little hope and good sense in the big scary city.

This story will make you grin, cheer, cry just a bit and want to fly with Peony as she Bees. It’s about being true to yourself, to those who love you, about living your dreams wildly and the profound power of friendship. It could also quite possibly change your whole outlook of and appreciation for fruit. More highly recommended than an apple a day for middle grade readers from eight upwards.

Allen and Unwin April 2017

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Meaningful Moments in Picture Books

Nearly every single picture book I read holds meaningful moments for me, some sliver of specialness or hug-full of hope that can empower and illuminate. These next few examples exhibit strong messages using memorable characters in ways young children can easily interpret and appreciate. A few words about each hardly do them justice, so please look these ones up to enjoy them for yourself.

Reena’s Rainbow by Dee White and Tracie Grimwood

Subtle, sweet and oozing with that sort of sophisticated simplicity that makes you love a story when you are not even sure why. Reena and Brown Dog feel a little outside of normal, not quite the same as everyone else. Reena is deaf but not oblivious to the world around her. Brown Dog is homeless but not without a need to love and protect. Together they find their true worth and meaning and along the way, lasting friendship. Gracefully told and delicately illustrated, Reena’s Rainbow will fill your heart with colour. Highly recommended.

EK Books September 2017

La La La A Story of Hope by Kate DiCamillo and Jamie Kim

An eloquently told, almost wordless symphony of colour, light and sound reverberating the liberating quality of hope. It’s about making a call, daring to speak out, and enduring the quiet moments in between waiting for a response with grace and patience. As Kate proclaims, ‘it is a story about singing your song and the world answering you back…a story that needs intimate reflection’. I encourage you to do so.

Walker Books Australia October 2017

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