Nostalgic about Aussie Summer – Picture Book Reviews

There’s nothing like an Aussie Christmas than the fresh scent of Summer mixed with a fragrance of fond memories and the savour of new ones. That’s how the following picture books will entice their readers, both young and old – with peace, unity and joy as we pleasure in the warmth of the festive and summery holiday season in Australia.

Corinne Fenton and Robin Cowcher return with another stunning ‘Little Dog’ story. From the iconic Melbourne in the previous, magical Christmas tale, Little Dog and the Summer Holiday takes Jonathan, Annie and their precious Westie, with caravan in tow, on holiday to the idyllic sites of Sydney. Immediately, Fenton paints a gloriously detailed adventure full of evocative language that is sure to bring about that nostalgic cue of wonderful family trips of yesteryear. Passing legendary landmarks such as the Dog on the Tuckerbox and Sydney Harbour Bridge, paddling at Bondi Beach and rattling “down the mountainside on the steepest scenic railway in the world” all make for an exciting, memorable holiday with family, friends, and of course, beloved pets.

Cowcher’s whimsical illustrations add a pleasurable sense of romanticism that capture the beauty and evocation of holidays like this. Parents and children will equally delight in Little Dog and the Summer Holiday, either reminding of the good old days, or enthusing a predilection for future family vacations. A beautiful book.

Black Dog Books, Walker Books, November 2017.

Summer – peaceful, tranquil, cheerful and contentment. Words that describe that special feeling of rest, fun and togetherness during the sunny season. And words that describe the special feeling emanating from this book by June Factor and sublime creator Alison Lester. Thirty years in print and Summer still feels as good as a homemade steamin’ puddin’ on a balmy Christmas Day.

Factor’s simple, silky and smooth Aussie voice shines through with robust rhyming character as we are swept up in a temperamental mix of family antics, Summer nuances and changing weather during the hot festive season. Lester’s legendary scenic art and winsome characters keep us occupied throughout with all the glorious combinations of farmyard outlooks and high-spirited busyness, respectively. From flies a gatherin’ to early morning rises, kin gatherin’ and present opening, pork a cracklin’ and raising glasses, clouds gatherin’ and making a bolt for cover, and finally napping and playing ‘til the stars are gatherin’ in the night sky.

Summer is a book of leisure, affection and ambience that will remain a classic to treasure and indulge in all the year round.

Viking Penguin Random House, November 2016. First edition 1987.

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Sweet Dreams, Little Ones – Picture Book Reviews

Amongst the themes of bedtime routines and playful antics are ones of sentimentality, unconditional love and guidance. Each striking in their own visual and lyrical ways, the following picture books perfectly set the tone for engaging and soothing shared reading experiences before the lights go out.

imageCounting Through the Day, Margaret Hamilton (author), Anna Pignataro (illus.), Little Hare Books, June 2016.

Here’s to making every little one count. Because this book gives us the warm fuzzies just like our own special ones do. Each number from one to millions is dedicated its own page with gorgeously combined pencil, watercolour and fabric collage illustrations. And to add to the gentle and soothing tone, a beautiful lyrical rhythm unfolds with every turn. The rhyming couplets take us through a fun and reassuring day with teddy, pets, favourite toys and loving parents and grandparents to share and protect the little girl.

Counting Through the Day is a comforting vision of a peaceful routine and the beauty of nature. It presents a seamless integration of time from morning to night, and number awareness from one to twelve and larger figures including twenty, hundreds, thousands and millions.

With immeasurable sweetness to devour, toddlers and preschoolers will lap up every precious moment shared reading this book with their loved ones.

imageI Just Couldn’t Wait to Meet You, Kate Ritchie (author), Hannah Sommerville (illus.), Penguin Random House Australia, March 2016.

From the get-go, this book brings a sentimental light and a sparkling twinkle to every mother’s eye. The endpapers are laced with precious milestones from early pregnancy scans to growing bellies and baby shower invitations, and completed with snippets of the baby’s development. Ritchie tells a poetic love story to her little one about her every thought, hope and dream that soon becomes a wonderful reality when baby enters the world. The calming watercolours in pastel yellows, greens and pinks deliver this affectionate tale as parents prepare for their bundle of joy to arrive. The illustrations exquisitely give meaning to the words, with mum’s imagination presented in delicate thought bubbles.

I Just Couldn’t Wait to Meet You is a book that both parents and their babies will treasure, enlightening bonds as they share their own loving stories of the journey into being.

imageQuick as a Wink, Fairy Pink, Lesley Gibbes (author), Sara Acton (illus.), Working Title Press, August 2016.

What better way to soothe young ones at the end of the day than with a sprinkle of mischief and a dusting of spirit from five little flutter fairies in all their lighthearted glory as they set off to bed! As Fairy Blue, Green, Gold and Red fairy-step their way from teeth brushing, bathing, dressing, and reading into fairy-dreamland, one cheeky flutter fairy is playing a sneaky hiding game around the house. Enchantingly engaging us, amongst the rollicking rhythm, with the repetitive phrase is “But someone’s playing hide and seek. Can you see her? Take a peek. Quick as a wink, find Fairy Pink!” After all the frolicsome fun, I wonder who falls asleep first?!

Clearly defined, bright colours and varied page spreads allow readers to identify each fairy and their actions. The illustrations further provide an interactive experience to complement the text with their adorably energetic line drawings and hidden details, such as locating the whereabouts of the naughty pink fairy.

Quick as a Wink, Fairy Pink is suitably the most fairy-licious read to get your little ones to hop, wriggle and flutter their way to bed every night. My three year old daughter highly recommends it!

imageNoisy Nights, Fleur McDonald (author), Annie White (illus.), New Frontier Publishing, August 2016.

It’s quite a predicament when one is unable to sleep with a terribly noisy racket outside your window! This is the case for poor Farmer Hayden. His menagerie of animals, plus a clattering train, are chirping, moo-ing, maa-ing, nickering and howling through the night. And no matter how loud he shouts, the volume is far too high to even hear him. So what’s a sleep-deprived farmer to do? Count sheep, of course!

A story of continuous laughter, and a touch of empathy, with its whimsical illustrations, Noisy Nights is loveable and entertaining. Preschoolers will certainly appreciate the silence after this read to ease them into a peaceful slumber.

imageDream Little One, Dream, Sally Morgan (author), Ambelin Kwaymullina (illus.), Viking Penguin Random House Australia, May 2016.

Vibrantly painted with line, pattern and bold colours, and told in a lyrically gentle tone, this title by much-loved Indigenous team sets such a joyous and endearing mood. A collection of popular Australian animal parents guide their babies to develop strength, skill and safety through nature’s most beautiful occurrences. Bushes bloom and roos bound, seas sigh and dolphins glide, insects buzz a story of the earth and snakes slide into the peace of a loveable land.

The visuals and the visual literacy blend flawlessly, and are both stunning to see and listen to. Dream Little One, Dream will transport preschool-aged children to another world where only the most transcendent of dreams can take flight.

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Review – How Big is Too Small? by Jane Godwin and Andrew Joyner

9780670070756How Big is Too Small?, Jane Godwin (author), Andrew Joyner (illus.), Penguin, 2015.  

Can size hold you back? Can size determine your value? Everyone and everything, from the miniscule to the enormous, has a place in this world. We all have important jobs to do. But Sam wonders – “How big is too small?”

It’s all relative, really. A big brother is tall, but not compared to his father. An ant’s a small creature, but not as small as a flea. Individual leaves are small, but each one contributes to a bigger picture – they make up a tree. And a tree has to start somewhere – as small as a seed.

From the philosophical brilliance of award-winning author, Jane Godwin, with the perfectly matched pairing of the superlative, Andrew Joyner, ‘How Big is Too Small?’ is a book of monumental wisdom and charm.

How big is too small book imageSam, the narrator, is told by his older brother that he is too small to play ball games with the big boys. With a heavy heart, he returns to his room, and he begins to ponder this line of reasoning. Soon, he is making insightful observations, first within his room, then outside his window. It started with a ball and an ant and a flea, then the leaf and the clouds roll onto his radar. As his idea grows, so does his confidence, and when he is needed to rescue the ball atop the roof, Sam makes another incredible discovery… A new friend. They form a bond, and are able to watch over the whole city from their own lookout construction. And with a fresh outlook on the world, and on his big (small) brother, who (or what) is too small now?

How big is too small book image1Godwin’s rhyming text is riveting, rollicking and masterful, reminiscent of Suess’s language. She has created this simple story about fitting in, being included and growing up, but with added depth and clarity that give readers the autonomy to question the big (and small) nuances of the world. Andrew Joyner has cultivated the seed, so to speak, effectively including loads of visual details about Sam’s philosophical interests to facilitate further discussion and hours of perusal by the book’s audience. His characteristically bold, energetic cartoon illustrations, with some collage features, simply take the story to another level – they bring about a sense of familiarity, are naturally captivating, thought-raising and eye-catching. From close-up shots of falling leaves, to sketches of buildings, scaled diagrams and handmade telescopes, there are plenty of references to perspective and proportion that can be explored.

‘How Big is Too Small’ is an intriguing read-aloud picture book that encourages reflection and creative thinking, and self-acceptance, delightfully fitting for any sized person from age four.

The Greatest Gatsby

Greatest GatsbyLiterary editors of both The Australian and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers commented about words and grammar in their columns this weekend.

The Greatest Gatsby: A Visual Book of Grammar (Viking, Penguin) is a very clever way to help everyone understand words and grammar. Tobhy Riddle is one of Australia’s notable picture book illustrators, with works such as Nobody Owns the Moon, My Uncle’s Donkey, Irving the Magician, Unforgotten, The Singing Hat and The Great Escape from City Zoo.

He uses his highly developed and creative design skills to explain English grammar in a motivating and comprehensible way. He believes the old adage that ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ and uses an inspired combination of his own illustrations, late nineteenth century photographs and other artwork in an uncluttered format with plenty of white space.

I particularly like the ‘English Words Network’, which sets out the parts of speech, such as nouns and conjunctions, like an urban railway line map. Riddle then spends time looking at each of these.

The title, ‘The Greatest Gatsby’ comes from a section on comparing adjectives. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a descriptive adjective, ‘The Greater Gatsby’ is a comparative adjective and ‘The Greatest Gatsby’ is the superlative. The illustrated Gatsbys (debonair men in suits) are shown in increasing height to match their descriptions. ‘Gatsbys’ are also used to demonstrate ‘articles’ such as ‘the great Gatsby’ and ‘a great Gatsby’.

My Uncle's Donkey

The section, ‘Word classes in action’ culminates in an intriguing picture of an old man sleeping. Each word in the accompanying sentence is analysed visually and with the words seen here in brackets: ‘The (definite article) old (descriptive adjective) man (common noun) slept (past tense verb) soundly (how adverb) outside (preposition) his (possessive pronoun) home (common noun)’.

Riddle tackles the tricky and often misused ‘me or I’, ‘it’s or its’, ‘lie or lay’, ‘that or which’, the active and passive voice, and showcases the clever spelling of ‘fish’ as ‘ghoti’.

Affixes are shown visually to make it clear how words are built up. An example is the word ‘help’. It is shown at the top of a page representing the carriage of a train. Underneath is the word ‘helpful’, with the suffix, ‘-ful’, as another carriage. Under that is ‘unhelpful’, with the prefix and suffix each filling a carriage. The bottom row shows the word ‘unhelpfully’ filling four carriages.

Word SpyThis book is an excellent resource for a wide range of people, including schools and adult English classes. It could be used in conjunction with Tohby Riddle and Ursula Dubosarsky’s awarded The Word Spy and The Return of the Word Spy.

Review – The Treasure Box

Many of my generation (sadly not all) and those of the next, fortunately have not endured the atrocities of war like those seen during the Holocaust. That we are able to feel its impact, appreciate the drama and acknowledge its implications is the unique potency of a picture book. Margret Wild and Freya Blackwood exploit this power wondrously well.The Treasure Box

The quiet unassuming cover of the Treasure Box magnetised me from the moment I was handed the book. The subdued colours, lone tree bereft of leaf and life, fragments of words adrift; all at conflict with the title, which promises something far brighter and more uplifting. I was a little unprepared for the subtle magnitude of the tale, again preoccupied by the end papers, comprising scraps of text which interestingly are taken from Sonya Hartnett’s and Morris Gleitzmann’s foreign editions of their own wartime tales of displacement and loss.

We join young Peter’s story after his home town is destroyed leaving the library in ruin. Books once housed there are transformed to nothing more substantial than bits of ash as ‘frail as butterflies.’ That is all but one; a book that by fortuitous happenstance had been taken home by Peter’s father before the bombing.

Treasure box illoPeter’s father is intent on safe-guarding the book for the stories it contains; stories that tell the history of Peter’s people, of a past ‘rarer than rubies, more splendid than silver, greater than gold.’ The book is secured in an old iron box which forms part of the meagre possessions they flee with from their homeland.

Peter’s father does not survive the soul crushing exodus but instills in Peter tremendous tenacity and a promise to keep their ‘treasure safe’. Unable to continue with such a load but true to his word Peter buries the box under an ancient linden tree, to which he returns many years later. His single-handed courage and loyalty perpetuates the most valuable treasure of all – the gift of hope and love.

Margaret WildMargaret Wild’s eloquent sense of story and place transports the reader into the very heart and soul of Peter and his father. Her thoughtfully sparse narrative paradoxically permeates every inch of the page and ounce of our attention. Neither her words nor the illustrations compete for space in this book. They work in convincing unison, caressing the story along and guiding us skilfully through horrific, almost unimaginable situations like sleeping in ditches, and holding the hand of a dying father.Freya Blackwood

Freya Blackwood’s artwork is instantly recognisable, however is taken one step higher using collage and multi-layering to create a stunning subtle 3D effect. Characters literally appear to be trudging across the page, accompanied by the metaphoric charred fragments of the leaves of a million books. The story is further enriched with delicate contrasts and symbolism on each page, all in the haunting sepia coloured tones of despair and misery.

Only the intensity of the treasure box itself, shown in vibrant red throughout, never fades. By Peter’s maturity, colour and prosperity have returned to his hometown. Even the library radiates with a glorious, golden yellow – hope restored.

I happened upon this picture book late last year, in spite of its 2013 publication date. I thought it was a most serendipitous discovery, but did not fully appreciate its immense value until I uncovered its contents. Truly one to treasure.

Penguin / Viking January 2013