‘It’s okay to feel this way’ is the reassuring refrain running through this upbeat, colourful book about the broad range of emotions everyone experiences. Most pages explore one feeling but each feeling is carefully paired, so that emotions generally seen as more positive or less positive are discussed one after the other. This clever approach helps to reinforce and elaborate the message, presented early on in the text, that emotions ‘visit’ us but don’t stay forever.
The artwork for It’s Okay to Feel this Way is full of bright, clean colours. Some pages also utilise plenty of white space to highlight the key recurring text that ‘it’s okay to feel this way’. The illustrations both mimic the naïve style of young children and at some points incorporate the finger-painting style and scratchy texta work of preschool children. This approach matches the upbeat tone of the book and also gives it a sense of familiarity for young readers, perhaps even encouraging them to explore how they might feel through their own drawings. The occasional incorporation of photographic images (e.g. grass, a crochet flower) into the mixed media artworks also provides wonderful opportunities for small children to practise pointing and to explore the images thoroughly.
It’s Okay to Feel this Way is a comforting first emotions book to enjoy with even very small children.
Scott Rothman (text) and Pete Oswald (illustrations)
Random House: 2021
Reviewed by Viv Young
Sir Cole is looking for an assistant. Luckily, she turns up just in time to help Cole with a frustrated Underwear Dragon who’s learning to read.
Return of the Underwear Dragon is a fun adventure-filled tale that engages with the theme of learning challenges. Sir Cole is a cool and clever knight whose teaching techniques put his reluctant scaly student at his ease; he accepts the underwear dragon’s attempts at subterfuge, takes it slowly, adapts learning to the dragon’s needs and adds in a special underwear reward. Young Sir Cole’s calm approach imagines kids in a position of authority and control which may help some early readers look at the experience of learning in a new light. The dragon’s sometimes explosive responses may also help readers explore the challenges of learning; the Underwear Dragon feels all the feelings you might expect—frustration, fatigue, anger and a desire to learn.
The artwork for Return of the Underwear Dragon is hilarious. The dragon is full of expression—cute and awkward one minute, ready to blow the next. For those kids already interested in castles and knights, the mingling of modern and medieval in text and illustrations is sure to provoke laughter. The dark muddy palette makes for a grim medieval setting overall and allows the touches of colour to highlight key characters, scenes and humour.
The Return of the Underwear Dragon is an entertaining read for any child but for kids struggling with expectations at school and especially with reading, it’s cathartic—full of fun to help the giggles bubble over while learning to learn.
Kristen Schroeder (author) and Hilary Jean Tapper (illustrator)
EK Books: 2022
Review by Viv Young
Jonah’s soft toy is a Freddy, not a teddy, so, when Jonah’s teacher announces a teddy bear’s picnic at school Jonah must decide whether or not to take his beloved friend.
Freddy the Not-Teddy is a gentle and fun story that provides many opportunities to talk with young children about difference, belonging and being true to yourself. Jonah ultimately chooses to include Freddy in his school picnic, but he does struggle with Freddy’s difference. As Jonah seeks to make Freddy like a teddy bear, enlists the support of a ‘real’ bear and confronts the confusion of his school friends, readers can explore what the ‘risks’ are in doing something different and also appreciate Jonah’s bravery as he decides what is right for him. The subtle teasing of the children also enables Jonah’s character to model good techniques for dealing with hurtful remarks; a quick-thinking kid, Jonah uses humour to disarm Freddy’s critics. The uncertainty of Freddy’s identity (is he a funky duck, a peculiar platypus or something else?) provides lots of laughs and, through the illustrations, insight into the adventures Freddy and Jonah have had together. The reader feels genuinely worried about whether Jonah will be able to stand by his peculiar and loveable soft toy.
The artwork for Freddy the Not-teddy uses pastel colours with lots of warm yellows and oranges that convey the warmth of Jonah’s relationship with Freddy beautifully. These colours and the watercolour medium give the story a timeless quality that suits the themes of the book, given their perennial relevance. Don’t forget to draw your young reader’s attention to the beautiful endpapers that are filled with lots of different ‘not teddies’ (penguins, platypuses, chickens and ducks). These creatures all have a nursery feel and may be a reminder to many readers, young and old, of those toys that mean so much and are so often not teddies.
A young girl provides instructions for getting a reluctant mum out of bed and ready for work in the morning.
This humorous story will have both kids and parents laughing out loud as it parodies the many strategies parents use to hurry their kids along in the morning. The role reversal is perfect for discussing routines with school age children as it gives them insight into the stages of getting ready that parents need to think about while keeping the mood light and entertaining. It’s also a great reminder for parents not to sweat the small stuff. The child in this story is parenting in the way we’d all like to on our best days—calmly waiting for her mum to finish on the toilet, turning the tv off when it distracts, allowing mum to wear her dancing shoes with just a little sigh. Parents can learn a lot from the wise child-parent in this story.
With its rich muted browns, oranges and purples, the artwork for Get Ready, Mama! feels like a great big morning hug when the sun isn’t quite up. The warm colours draw attention to the love and caring that lies behind the getting ready routine, even in its tricky moments. The illustrations use body language and facial expressions to capture the different pre-occupations of Mama and child. For example, Mama is smelling a flower while the child is busy shooing the puppy out the back door. These details work seamlessly with the text to create wonderful humour but are also useful to discuss with kids who may not always be aware of what parents are doing in the morning.
Get Ready, Mama! is an entertaining way to think about routines from a different perspective and may help both parents and kids see the morning hustle and bustle in a new light.
A young boy dreams big dreams about what he will do when he grows up. When he plants a seed that grows into an unusually tall tree, climbing the tree becomes one of those dreams until the boy loses confidence.
The Seed of Doubt is suitable for a wide range of ages to mull over and there is plenty to think about with this fascinating picture book. The story deals most clearly with feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. The boy’s changing interaction with the seed he plants —from initial excitement to disappointment and lack of confidence—may mirror the experience of many children who find tree climbing alluring yet also challenging. The only overt advice for managing self-doubt is to believe in oneself and not give up. This advice is articulated by the father who encourages the child but is also taken on board by the child who reiterates his father’s words at a key juncture. There is perhaps though some implicit advice in the child’s physical contact with the tree, namely the potential role nature can play in restoring and healing.
Indeed, while the story is focused on emotions and overcoming fears, it raises interesting questions about nature and its capacity to both overwhelm and inspire. The boy’s physical contact with the tree ultimately leads to healing and inspiration but for older children who frequently encounter information about environmental crises the tree’s unsettling size and impact on the boy may be especially interesting to explore.
The artwork for The Seed of Doubt is stunning. Sprawling landscapes convey a sense of the wonder of nature, as do the many scenes in which the tree doesn’t quite fit on the page. The background colours are often muted greens, blues, greys and browns, which feel authentic for the natural settings, while touches of very bright colour draw attention to the brilliance of the tree and the exciting views the boy sees from it.
The Seed of Doubt is a book for all ages that is slightly unsettling at times but rewarding in its hopeful and awe-inspiring presentation of nature. The fact that tree climbing is often something of a rite of passage into older childhood and greater physical capacity may make this book particularly relatable for many children.
Dimity Powell (author) and Nicky Johnston (illustrator)
EK Books: 2022
Reviewed by Viv Young
Leo is worried about the new show and tell topic about dads at school because he doesn’t know his father, but there is someone else who is cool and courageous to talk about.
Dimity Powell and Nicky Johnston tackle a difficult but important topic with this picture book, namely kids who have no significant contact with a father figure. The resolution of the story affirms the role of mums who are both mother and father, loving, supporting and inspiring their children. The latter is playfully conveyed through the occupation of Leo’s mum who is a writer of wild fantasies but also the kind of mum who makes his favourite pizza. There are poignant moments in the story. For example, when Leo imagines what his father might do for a living and when he asks the next-door neighbour to stand in for his dad. These moments add authenticity to what is a challenging topic and opportunities to discuss the broader topic of parenthood without identifying any one situation that may or may not be relevant to particular families.
The artwork for This is my dad uses a broad pallet of muted bright colours that bring out the fun of Leo’s home, which is full of books, pets and artworks. These details and the pink, purple and orange backgrounds at home give the appearance of warmth and safety. The use of thought bubbles and symbols also helps explore some of Leo’s feelings and those of his school mates around the topic of dads, giving due weight to the importance of fathers for many kids and providing opportunities to extend discussion of the book to all children.
This is my dad is an important book for families that may not find themselves represented in picture books often. It is also a useful resource for any family wishing to explore different family structures. The topic is sensitively negotiated by the picture book creators who craft a space in which many different families could fit and feel comfortable while telling a story that is both realistic and positive.
Teachers notes and also fun activities can be downloaded from the publisher.
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.
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.
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.