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.
Lu Fraser (author) and Sarah Massini (Illustrator)
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.
A young girl announces to her Mum on the first day of school that she will find a best friend. Her Mum expresses doubt but this little girl knows exactly how to spot one.
How to Spot a Best Friend is a light-hearted yet wise guide to friendship. Told in the first person, the girl protagonist explains to her mum the difference between a friend and a best friend. For example, a friend lends you a crayon, but a best friend lends you their ‘brand-new, extra-sharp green crayon’ even when you have a lot of leaves to colour in. By contrasting good and excellent examples of friendship, Bea Birdsong keeps the text positive and inspiring while dealing with a topic that can often be fraught for young people. Indeed, the text touches on bullying, competition and jealousy which may be useful for parents who wish to guide their children about what true friendship looks like. Moreover, while the title indicates a best friend the illustrations show the girl protagonist being helped by many best friends of various genders, cultural backgrounds and abilities, which may help parents discuss issues surrounding cliquish behaviour too.
Besides adding this inclusive idea of multiple best friends to the text, the artwork for How to Spot a Best Friend draws out the gentle humour of the text, playing up fun references to, for example, zombie games. The bold and colourful spreads match the upbeat tone of the book while taking every opportunity to reinforce its subtle messages. For example, astute use of body language in the bullying scene imbue the otherwise cheery colours with the necessary gravity to match the subject matter.
The simple premise of this excellent picture book belies its complex and thought-provoking approach to childhood friendship. It is a fantastic resource for all parents and children looking to contemplate friendship and what it should involve.
Justine Adams (author) and Camille Manley (illustrator)
Affirm press: 2021
Reviewed by Viv Young
Goodnight Toes is a bedtime book and wind-down routine all rolled into one that will help young listeners focus on each part of their body and relax it, ready for sleep.
This sweet bedtime book is a great tool for parents wishing to help their kids sleep and to start teaching them some good mental health techniques, such as gratefulness and body positivity in an age-appropriate way. The focus on relaxing each part of their body by thinking about its usefulness during the day is a thoughtful and positive way to encourage children to think of the functionality of bodies and the way they help us play and learn all day long. The tone of the book is also loving. The parent who narrates the wind-down routine begins and ends with a reassuring statement about love and safety that is useful for caregivers looking for books that emphasise connection.
The artwork for Goodnight Toes, which focuses on a mum and her daughter, begins and ends in bed at night-time. As the relaxation routine starts the mum encourages the girl to thank her toes for the wiggling, her feet for stomping etc. while the images recall their day at the beach together. Although the illustrations switch from day to night, the day beach scenes are full of deep colours and tranquil natural environments, mirroring the relaxing tone of the book as a whole.
Worry Monster is growing bigger and bigger, keeping Archie awake with worries about starting at a new school. Archie remembers what Mum did last time and he’s going to give it a try, but will it work without Mum there?
Go away, Worry Monster! is a great story for kids who are ready to take a more independent approach to anxious feelings. Archie remembers previous anxious episodes when Mum helped him banish the worry monster, but now he’s a ‘big boy’ he wants to tackle his Worry Monster all by himself. This is a particularly apt approach for a story which involves fears surrounding starting at a new school where kids do have to tackle uncomfortable feelings without key support people physically present. The text also provides some good practical tips for tackling anxious thoughts, namely breathing and using factual information to combat spiralling anxious thoughts, which are appropriate for young people to practise on their own.
The illustrations for Go away, Worry Monster! give due weight to the fear that anxiety can entail—the Worry Monster’s expanding presence and somewhat reptilian features are just the teeniest bit scary but the monster’s sock-like appearance, highlighted by frenetic squiggly marks, always keeps the mood light and fun. Night-time anxieties with their capacity to become distorted and more worrying are given superb expression in the illustrations, which underscore the bedtime setting with a deep purple background that glows a little in the lamplight. A cast of silent, comforting characters—an owl lamp, a dog, and a teddy bear—remain unidentified in the text, but provide Archie with some moral support and the readers with lots of laughs.
Go away, Worry Monster! is a fun story about a not-too-scary worry monster that also provides practical resources for growing-up kids to manage their anxiety independently.
When Lucy is excluded at school, she is joined by Sad, a large blue bear. Lucy tries to make Sad go away, but she has to find ways to comfort him instead.
The second title in the Follow your Feelings series doesn’t disappoint. It follows the same overall approach to emotions as Max and Worry, similarly encouraging readers to accept and understand their feelings, but with insights and subtle advice appropriate to the particular feeling of sadness. For example, when Sad cannot be ignored, Lucy must find ways to ‘fill his bucket’. She does this by considering the things that make her feel better. These are all small everyday activities (sniffing a flower, eating yummy foods, reading) and often linked to interaction with a trusted adult.
The dialogue between Sad and Lucy is a treat and mirrors their growing sense of comradeship. At first Lucy tries to avoid Sad and even when she attempts to comfort him it is a little hit and miss, creating lovely moments of warm humour. Eventually, however, Lucy is a true friend to Sad and her tenderness is heart-warming. The resolution of the story also sends a subtle message that if we look after our own feelings, as Lucy looks after Sad, then we can be generous in our care of others.
The artwork for Sad uses contrasting block colours—Sad is big and blue but the sky is always yellow and there are dashes of pink and green too. This technique may help readers put sadness in perspective but it also acknowledges that sadness may occur in otherwise happy places. In short, the illustrations create lots of opportunities for discussion. Sad the bear initially towers over little Lucy in the illustrations. He is oppressive but never threatening. Indeed, he is huggable, if also a little pathetic both in his morose expressions and amusingly apathetic approach to Lucy’s attempts to cheer him up. This heavy big bear character is perfect for the gloomy emotion of sadness, yet even Sad is allowed to pep up and also grow smaller as the story unfolds.
The empathetic rendering of what are often seen as negative emotions is one of the great strengths of this series. Sad’s existence is understandable and reasonable; the bullying situation that announces his arrival is something to feel sad about and comfort is what we hope children will receive when they feel distressed by such an event. Lucy and Sad is a beautiful story to help kids feel comfortable with challenging emotions and find positive ways to seek comfort.
Max is worried about maths and Worry, his stressed-out meerkat self, is so agitated that Max has to step in and help him out.
Max and Worry has just become one of my favourite picture books for kids dealing with anxiety. It is a clever and funny story that contains some practical advice but more importantly presents a heart-warming and healthy way of viewing anxiety. By making anxiety an external and extremely cute meerkat that Max feels able to help, Kitty Black and Jess Rose encourage readers to understand the importance of listening to and talking to their anxiety rather than simply trying to get rid of it. The meerkat’s dialogue is hysterically hyperbolic and the dramatic poses and expressions it adopts create a humour all of their own; you genuinely want to help this Worry not surpress it. When Max comforts his Worry and helps him with practical tasks like asking for help, breathing and noticing how other kids make mistakes, you are rooting for Max and his Worry. When the meerkat disappears toward the end of the story, he is replaced by another calmer, more confident creature suggesting the rewards of caring for one’s emotions, whatever they might be. This healthy approach to anxiety is a gift to parents and kids alike.
The artwork for Max and Worry uses a limited palette skilfully. There is a base grey contrasted with bright green, purple and orange. The grey is particularly dominant in the classroom scenes (rather than at home) and was, for this reader, reminiscent of that stomach-churning tunnel vision you can feel when stressed. This made the presentation of anxiety feel particularly authentic, especially when combined with the insightful text. The contrasting grey, green, orange and purple help highlight the central characters, Max and Worry, and the way their responses to stress relate to each other. Different coloured fonts will also help caregivers distinguish between Max and Worry’s dialogue when reading aloud.
Max and Worry is a genuinely funny story that will entertain young readers while providing caregivers with lots of cues for discussion about anxiety and some hints about practical ways to address it. Don’t forget to read the author’s blurb at the end of the story which contains some sage advice for approaching anxiety and using the book with young readers.
Ellie Royce (author) and Andrew McLean (Illustrator)
Ford St: 2021
Reviewed by Viv Young
As one child’s blended rainbow family grows and grows, the roles that make everyone important for that child stay the same.
Frizzle and Me is a heart-warming, humorous story that balances its emphasis on change and stability perfectly. It is told in the first person by the child protagonist; as the family grows year by year the child unsurprisingly seeks reassurance and at every turn is met with positivity and love. This process of seeking and receiving comfort creates a familiar rhythmic refrain that means the story’s emphasis on reassurance is right at its core in the very words as you speak them, and your child anticipates them. The artworks also show the development of the family members’ roles over time which creates a subtle sense of change not only in the family make-up but also how each adult relates to the child. These layers of change and stability mean that this story always feels authentic even though the adult relationships may seem idyllic to some readers.
The artworks are a treat in many different ways. They are full of colour, action, and affection with spreads that explore the whole family’s interaction as well as the way the child relates to specific adults. The artworks also allow kids the opportunity to follow the exploits of favourite toys and furry members of the family not mentioned in the text. These extra details are sure to delight curious readers, adding humour, heart and interest.
Frizzle and Me is a beautiful story for any family wanting to emphasise connection and explore what changes and what stays the same in a family filled with love.
Evan (a fox) and his pet dog enjoy music, adventures, and working in their prize-winning garden. When Evan’s dog dies, he allows their much-loved garden to be overrun by weeds until something grows that helps him come to terms with his grief.
The Rough Patch is a Caldecott Honor book and deeply moving. The term of intense grief that the story focuses on follows the seasons and with great sensitivity alludes to the time it can take to process loss. Through Evan’s different responses to the garden Brian Lies explores various emotions associated with grief such as anger, sadness and acceptance. Ultimately, the book is full of hope and gently reminds the reader that there will come a time when the grief is not so acute.
Evan is portrayed as a fox and an old-fashioned farmer; the illustrations have an old world, country charm that includes illusions to the food and entertainment of country life. The colours range from rich, warm earthy tones to dirty greys and greens, mirroring the many emotions explored in the book. The decision to portray Evan as a fox—in some cultures associated with ferocity—heightens both Evan’s tenderness towards his dog and also the intensity of his grief. The fierce fox brought low by the death of his pet may help children perceive the difficulty of loss for all people—big, small, tough or sensitive.
The Rough Patch does not talk down to young children; it treats grief as a serious and time-consuming emotion. Many children experiencing loss will no doubt appreciate the honesty with which the subject is tackled.
For other picture books dealing with the death of a loved one see our Review List.
Two boys—Jack and Alex—are playing in the sandpit at a local playground while their mums chat on a bench and a baby sleeps in a stroller. It soon becomes apparent that while ‘Jack likes trucks. Alex likes dolls’.
This hilarious story about good friends negotiating difference is full of wisdom and kindness. It presents conflict and its resolution and with lots of cues for discussion. The dialogue is realistic (‘I like…,’ ‘You can’t…’) and easy to follow. But for this reader the most refreshing part of the story is the way in which the creators avoid stereotypes; Jack is a noisy boisterous kid but he’s also capable of thinking through problems, Alex is quieter, even a little dreamy, but just as assertive as his friend when the situation calls for it.
Bob Graham’s award-winning artworks make this wonderful story sparkle from the very start as he sets the scene before the text of the story begins. His knack for capturing gestures and expressions is on display in every spread and perfects the characterisation of every character, even the mums absorbed in their own conversation! The light bright colours of the world Bob Graham creates convey all the hope and happiness that childhood should be about.
This is a fantastic first book for talking positively with kids about difference and friendship.
Nicole Godwin (author) and Christopher Nielsen (illustrator)
Walker Books: 2020
Reviewed by Viv Young
A young jelly fish falls in love with a plastic bag she mistakes for a jelly-boy and follows it into the deep ocean currents.
Jelly-Boy is an imaginative exploration of water pollution from the perspective of ocean creatures. The plot takes its cue from tales of star-crossed lovers—the jelly-girl’s family don’t like this dangerous and different ‘jelly-boy’ yet she follows him anyway. While this may sound serious, when applied to a jelly fish and a plastic bag its humour is clear from the outset. There is, however, a serious undercurrent to this story. The danger to which the text refers is from the perspective of the jelly-fish who do not really understand what this jelly-boy is, but for readers the danger is the water pollution conveyed with great subtlety and force in the illustrations. The tension between text and image is what makes this book particularly powerful—it conveys all the innocence and trust of the animal world as well as the danger pollution poses to it.
The artwork for Jelly-Boy delivers the straightforward message about water pollution and is visually compelling. Each page is alive with colour, pattern and texture, reflecting the great beauty of the ocean world in danger. The repetitive shapes also help the reader to empathise with the jelly-girl and her confusion about jelly-boy—the plastic bag while recognisable is reminiscent of the creatures around it.
Jelly-Boy never mentions water pollution explicitly and that is its great strength—by viewing water pollution from the perspective of the creatures who suffer from it Godwin and Nielsen have managed to create a humorous and deeply moving story.
Maggie Hutchings (author) and Evie Barrow (illustrator)
Affirm Press: 2021
Reviewed by Viv Young
After Willa’s parents get divorced her family keeps getting bigger until Willa’s had enough! But can you ever have enough love?
Enough Love? is told in the first person by a young girl who is part of an expanding blended family. She tells her story by enumerating and drawing the additions to her family—human, feathered and furred. The animal additions provide gentle humour and the process of counting family members feels particularly realistic, picking up on that interest in sorting and numbers that so many young children enjoy. Sometimes Willa mentions explicitly how she is feeling (happy, sad, mad), but the overall emphasis is on continuing connection with her parents, her parents’ new partners and her siblings.
The warm, bright tones of the artwork for Enough Love? implicitly create a sense of fun, love and belonging. The illustrations combine the styles of artist and character—on the one hand there are the pencil drawings depicting Willa and her expanding family and on the other, Willa’s own crayon drawings of her family. Sometimes the crayon drawings start to take over the page. This happens especially at moments of high emotion and focuses the reader on the child’s experience, conveying her feelings simply and forcefully. For parents wishing to discuss emotions the use of symbolism, expressive facial expressions and body language also provide cues for conversations about feelings.
Enough Love? treats its child protagonist with respect and shows her getting used to her loving blended family with all the humour, highs and lows one might expect.
Jane Godwin (author) and Felicita Sala (illustrator)
Reviewed by Viv Young
Arno has lost the wooden horse his grandfather made for him. With his friends, Arno searches the countryside, but he still can’t find the horse.
The story begins like a mystery with Arno and his friends searching far and wide for the missing toy. The setting for their search is the Australian countryside, rendered dramatically with dark orange scrub and twisting gums. The artwork and rhythmic rhyming text work together to make this first part of the story feel adventurous and fun.
The mood does shift but only a little as the connection between the toy horse and Arno’s grandfather is revealed. The text deals lightly with the loss Arno has experienced; the grandfather’s illness is mentioned explicitly, but his death is only implied. The story does not dwell on this loss but rather turns to the profound connection between the boy and his grandfather that enables Arno to locate the wooden horse.
Arno and his Horse explores the role objects play in evoking memories and connecting people gently and powerfully. The artwork, which renders the Australian landscape so effectively, is full of contrasts between cool greens and deep oranges, curves and straight lines; it provides wonderful opportunities to explore the spectrum of feelings surrounding loss that includes those positive emotions such as love and attachment.
Bricks are going missing from the town of Littlelight and letting in all the different sounds, smells and stories of the northern, southern, eastern and western peoples. The mayor is stirring up the people towards anger and hostility, but the sounds, smells, and stories are stirring up something else.
Littlelight is a hopeful tale that encourages readers to think about the benefits multiculturalism brings to all peoples. It treats lightly but effectively the issue of mob mentality and also leadership—the mayor stirs up the people towards anger and the people do follow his lead but only to a point. This aspect of the book could be useful for parents talking about how to respond to racism in the community and the importance of questioning those in positions of power.
The illustrations for Littlelight use dramatic two-tone spreads, contrasting the mayor’s dull grey city with the colour of each vibrant culture beyond the walls. The hues of these places are almost fluorescent — they glow as if the process of enlightenment is taking place on the page as the townspeople come to understand how they benefit from the differences they are encountering. While there is no violence in the story, the facial expressions of the characters convey aggressive anger powerfully and are a useful way to talk about what intolerance looks like and how it might feel for those who experience it.
Littlelight reads like a fairy-tale; this timeless quality gives it an authority and a gravity that suits its serious subject matter, while the resolution and artwork keep it always optimistic.
Maggie Hutchings (author) and Evie Barrow (illustrator)
Affirm Press: 2020
Reviewed by Viv Young
A young child notices a homeless man named Pete and they connect through chalk drawings.
I saw Pete and Pete saw Me explores the wonderful gift children have for seeing people without prejudice. It portrays moments of connection between Pete and the young child narrator, before Pete’s situation results in sickness as the weather turns cold. The ending is ultimately optimistic, but the difficulty and injustice of Pete’s circumstances are made clear, often through the stark if simple speech of the child character.
The artwork for I saw Pete and Pete saw Me uses pencil markings to great effect, capturing for example the scruffiness of Pete and his dog as well as the young child’s scribbled drawing of a house. Several pages contain vignettes that allow readers to perceive the different (and kind) interactions that Pete has with others in the community and the use of dark tones helps convey the child’s deep sense of concern for Pete. The overall palette is, however, light and bright, moreover, the symbolic use of yellow underscores the hopeful message which stays with the reader long after you’ve turned the last page.
This is a poignant read and one worth exploring with any child ready to ask questions about the homelessness they see around them.