The Secret of Sapling Green by Penelope Pratley

The Secret of Sapling Green

Penelope Pratley

EK Books: 2022

ISBN: 9781925820980

Age: 4+

Reviewed by Viv Young

Sapling Green feels uncomfortable sharing her unique green thumbs and as a result is unable to connect with other kids at school. When a storm breaks branches off the schoolyard climbing tree, Sapling finally shares her gift in a way that enables her, and also someone quite different to her, to belong in the school environment.

This gentle book about belonging tackles important issues that affect many children, namely feelings of difference and exclusion that are not the result of teasing and bullying. Sapling is a girl who longs for someone to play with but only watches her schoolmates enjoying their boisterous play. The story does not explain or judge her reticence. Rather, it explores Sapling’s unique difference (her literal green thumbs) as she uses it to assist Wynn, one of the boisterous tree climbers at school, who is negatively affected by the potential loss of the schoolyard tree. The intriguing presentation of Sapling and Wynn’s own faltering sense of happiness at school are useful for caregivers seeking to raise issues of belonging and difference. The contrasting personalities and experiences of Sapling and Wynn are a great reminder that we all need to be ourselves to feel like we belong and that being ourselves may look different for different people.

The artwork for The Secret of Sapling Green uses a lot of white space which usefully foregrounds the action, body language and expressions of the human protagonists. This is fantastic for caregivers wishing to explore emotions with their children. The white space also helps highlight Sapling’s green thumbs which complement her pink hair and pink shoes. These unusual character features bring out the liveliness of Sapling which we see in those spreads where she is surrounded by her plants, but which is not so obvious in her initial interactions at school. This savvy characterisation of Sapling hints at the vibrant personality Sapling embodies and will be able to express, if only she is given the chance to be herself.  Lastly, the fantastic elements in the story and artwork are sure to fascinate young readers as we follow Sapling into the roots of a tree!

The Secret of Sapling Green is a beautifully illustrated and imaginative story about belonging, appropriate for any child who may feel different at times. It may be particularly useful for neurodiverse children who are finding school a challenge, because it doesn’t medicalise difference or focus on a set of ‘symptoms’ that don’t necessarily, or even often, relate to all kids ‘on the spectrum’.  Sapling, whose experience is unlike anyone else’s, is a character we can all connect with.  

The Wild Guide to Starting School by Laura and Philip Buntings

The Wild Guide to Starting School

Laura and Philip Bunting

Scholastic: 9781761126284

Age: 4+

Reviewed by Viv Young

Addressed to your own wildling, this laugh-out-loud picture book takes you through a wild first day of school from waking up to home time. It contains loads of hilarious dos and don’ts with some very sage advice as well.

The Wild Guide to Starting School has a grown-up, modern feel; it treats kids like the growing-up people they are becoming and will soon need to be. The jokes are age appropriate and quite sophisticated; they make kids work for the laughs by investigating the illustrations. Great practice for school! There is some plain, good advice like smile and ask questions when trying to make friends. Most page spreads also provide great conversation starters for discussing how kids might handle aspects of their own first days at school. For example, the drop-off spread shows a cast of Australian animals giving their characteristic goodbyes. Dingoes do the ‘smell you later’, Bilbies do the ‘Bil-Bye’. While this is obviously intended to provoke laughter, there’s a real conversation to be had here about how families should approach those anxious moments before the bell rings and this book is excellent at facilitating those conversations.

The artwork for The Wild Guide to Starting School is, as indicated above, a key component of the humour that is on every page. The wildlings are a group of colourful Australian animals that you follow throughout the course of the book as they navigate different aspects of the first day differently. The animal characters are set against a fairly beige background—often brown, sometimes lined. This feels appropriate; schools are institutions and while they can be colourful, students often bring that colour.

The Wild Guide to Starting School is designed for kids; it’s focused on the belly laughs with the occasional piece of advice you really do need. It should tick all the caregiver boxes because every page is a conversation starter that can help you figure out what your little wildling needs to know or needs to plan with you.

A boy, his bear and a bully by Katie Flannigan & P. J. Reece

A Boy, his Bear and a Bully

Katie Flannigan & P. J. Reece
EK Books: 2021
ISBN: 9781925820898
Age: 4+
Reviewed by Viv Young

Scott takes his bear, Buttons, to school to help him feel brave. When Buttons goes missing and the school bully strikes again, Scott must find his brave before he can find his bear.

A Boy, his Bear and a Bully is a humorous and encouraging story about bullying which provides a good example of standing up for yourself in a positive way. Put to the test by Duncan’s bullying behaviour (e.g., name-calling, snatching treats, destroying class work), Scott struggles without his bear to help him feel brave. Scott does have allies—his friend Rosie and eventually his teacher — but ultimately it is the stirring of feelings caused by the loss of his bear that helps Scott use powerful words to put an end to the bullying without physical aggression. The key tips for managing a bully (e.g., using ‘I statements’, being aware of bodily feelings and sensations to manage emotions, telling a trusted adult) are all woven seamlessly into the story and provide great prompts for parents wishing to discuss how to manage bullies in real-life situations.

The artwork for A Boy, his Bear and a Bully makes the most of a hint in the text that the key drama all takes place on a dress-up day. The main protagonists are dressed in a dinosaur, karate and unicorn outfit; even the teacher has bunny ears and monster feet. These costumes lighten the mood and bring a lot of laughter to a subject that can be tricky to talk about. The costumes are also used astutely by the artist to enhance our understanding of the characters and the emotions involved with bullying and asserting oneself.

A Boy, his Bear and a Bully is a wonderful addition for any kid’s library that can help parent-kid teams discuss a challenging topic while having a good laugh.

The Witchling’s Wish by Lu Fraser and Sarah Massini

The Witchling’s Wish

Lu Fraser (author) and Sarah Massini (Illustrator)

Bloomsbury: 2021

ISBN: 9781408899953

Age: 3+

Reviewed by Viv Young

The lonely little Witchling needs one last ingredient to magic up a friend. She finds that ingredient in Lily’s bedroom but soon discovers that she may not need a friendship spell after all.

The Witchling’s Wish is a magical tale that stresses the role of kindness and empathy in forging friendships. The message about friendship is straightforward and doesn’t attempt to teach in specific ways but rather by example, leaving plenty of room to discuss what empathic friendship might look like in different scenarios.

While The Witchling’s Wish is an inspiring book about friendship it is also a great tale for kids excited by magic. The witchling’s misty mountain home, her wobbly broom and interesting concoctions create a wondrous world and the hypnotic rhyming text match the magical aura of the illustrations perfectly.

The artwork sets the whole story on a moonlit night but the dark and lonely mountain home of the Witchling is always offset by bright lime green and rosy red highlights, underscoring the Witchling’s good-natured demeanour. The warm colours of Lily’s room do set up a contrast with the home of the Witchling, yet the colours of their different worlds interweave quite literally as their paths cross, conveying a wonderful sense of connection.

The Witchling’s Wish is a heart-warming tale about making friends that brings out the magic of empathy and kindness.