Ashlee Latimer (author) and Shahrzad Maydani (illustrator)
Abrams Books: 2022
Reviewed by Viv Young
Francis loves words! She is looking forward to sharing all the new words she has discovered that start with the letter ‘P’ but when revising the letter ‘F’ some of her classmates call Francis fat in a way that makes her question the meaning of the word.
When Francis’s classmates call her fat, their tone redefines her sense of the word and its associations; it is no longer about rubbing her dog’s belly or being curled up in her mum’s soft arms but something that makes her feel ‘cold’ and ‘small’. Francis does not have to confront these bullies on her own; her teacher calls out the bullies and her dad provides quiet support as she works through her experience and discovers the word ‘possible’.
The idea of possible is fascinating; it takes the reader right away from worries about body image to a much broader interrogation of what really matters in life. Possible becomes a sophisticated concept to think about what makes us feel good and interested in the world; it encourages readers to think what possible might mean for them.
The artwork for Francis Discovers Possible is filled with warm pinks, yellows and oranges reflecting Francis’s feelings about the world, about words and her family. The soft pastel markings are a constant reminder of Francis’s ideas about ‘fat’; that fat is soft and comforting. There is also something of possibility throughout the artworks as thoughts and ideas mingle with reality giving each scene a dream-like quality.
Francis Discovers Possible touches on themes of bullying and body positivity but perhaps most of all it explores the power of language to change how we view ourselves and the world. This is powerful stuff to present to children and talk about with them!
John Agard (author) and Satoshi Kitamura (illustrator)
Scallywag Press: 2022
Reviewed by Viv Young
Creature-Of-No-Words feels but does not speak until he meets Creature-of-Words who helps him feel and speak.
With great compassion and insight, the creators of When Creature Met Creature have produced a story that encourages readers to perceive the role of language in expressing emotions and, even more importantly, its role in enabling humans to receive comfort when their emotions are challenging. John Agard’s rhythmic and periodically rhyming text is a pleasure to read aloud. It gives voice to a process most children have to go through yet can’t articulate and it does this with great kindness; never, for example, judging Creature-of-No-Words when he thumps his chest or groans.
The artwork for When Creature met Creature is bright and scribbly! Kids will love the illustrations which, although sophisticated, never lose touch with their young audience. The use of scratchy texta like marks, bold colours, and arresting patterns are reminiscent of young artists yet the depth of expression on the creatures’ faces and use of subtle symbolism and repetition leave adult audiences in no doubt of the illustrator’s great expertise and skill.
When Creature met Creature is a touching story that feels like a story; it notices rather than teaches about that tricky stage when kids are just learning to voice their emotions. It will be a great addition to any library!
Bob tries and tries but he just can’t fly until Crow comes along and shows him how to … breathe!
Take a Breath is a quirky, humorous story about learning to manage anxiety. Bob is a small red bird who, although he tries hard, is struggling to fly and feeling down about it. When he meets Crow, who struggled to perch, Bob learns how to become more conscious of his breathing. At first Bob is sceptical about this new skill and even when he sees how good breathing makes him feel, he still doesn’t learn to fly immediately, but breathing does make it easier to keep trying. Bob’s slow progression, doubts and ultimate success may help young readers set realistic goals for their own challenges.
The artwork for Take a Breath is full of laughs. There are many humorous vignettes showing Bob’s doleful experience of dealing with failure. Lots of white space as well as a quite limited colour palette (black, white, and red in many spreads) help readers to focus on Bob’s challenges and also how he feels about them. Equally amusing and instructive are those scenes where Crow and Bob practise breathing. The effect is funny but also gives kids a real sense of what they are aiming for: a big breath in that pushes their belly out! There is a cartoon quality to the illustrations throughout that is likely to appeal to most kids (think Angry birds without the agro). The scene where Bob finds a certain amount of inner peace through breathing (though not yet success at flying) uses splashes of psychedelic colour and pattern to give a sense of just how good this breathing lark can be and in so doing provides a great advertisement for a technique that can be hard for young kids to learn and have patience with.
Take a Breath will be a great addition to any library but may be especially useful for kids who are dismissive of books about emotions or are just finding it hard to get started with managing their anxiety. Bookstores are filled with books about anxiety and many of these do contain instructions about breathing. It is great to see this example that teaches but does not take itself too seriously and allows kids to see the funny side of their worries, if not this whole breathing business that adults go on about!
Nicholas has just found a coin and he is off to the local sweet store to buy the thing he loves more than almost anything—liquorice. But Cat loves Nicholas and she will not let him go without her…
Go Home, Cat! is a tale of unconditional love and friendship that suggests the capacity of both to lessen the heartache of disappointment, a challenging emotion for most children. Nicholas is palpably excited about the liquorice he intends to buy and while his love of liquorice remains his first thought en route to the sweet shop, another more important love takes precedence in the end.
Cat displays a child-like persistence in following Nicholas and Nicholas’s cautious and censorious tone and gestures in response to Cat are quite adult-like. This characterisation encourages young readers to identify with the more mature human character, preparing them to apprehend Nicholas’s selfless act of unconditional love in the conclusion. The cat’s innocent and uncomprehending ‘Marl’ in response to all of Nicholas’s chiding is a highlight of the story. It underscores the cat’s childlike character but is also great fun to read out loud and is an invitation for kids to explore onomatopoeia by considering how familiar animal sounds might be represented differently in speech.
The artwork for Go home, Cat! is a dream. The muted bright colours, Nicholas’s mid-20th century costume and the cobblestone village in which he and Cat live all give the story an old-fashioned charm that suits its timeless themes. Cat’s playfulness, Nicholas’s excitement and also his grown-up attempts to manage the persistent Cat are enhanced at every turn in the illustrations, adding great humour and interest. Young readers will especially love the detail in the sweet shop and the map of Nicholas’s route that covers the end pages!
The themes of unconditional love and friendship in this enchanting story are thoughtful and, in some respects, mature, but the story of Go Home, Cat! is so engaging and the characters so loveable that children can easily grasp the timeless and beautiful message it conveys.
Michelle Worthington (author) and Nicky Johnston (Illustrator)
EK Books: 2023
Reviewed by Viv Young
Mama’s Chickens is an age-appropriate story about early onset dementia that uses one mum’s nurturing relationship with the family’s pet chooks to discuss changes wrought by illness that affect her whole family.
Mama is initially a reluctant chook-parent but soon falls in love with a brood of feathery hens. The text explains that Mum perceives a likeness between the personality of one special chook and her own child. This explicitly expressed connection allows young readers to follow the implicit exploration of how dementia may impact children; as Mama’s memory and behaviour is affected by illness, the text describes what is happening in relation to the chooks (e.g.: she becomes short tempered, forgets names) while the pictures show how the same issues affect Mama’s children. This analogy between child and pet is made particularly poignant and also accessible through the use of the child’s voice in telling the story.
The warm tones in the overall design and artwork for Mama’s Chickens keep the mood of the book joyful and that is the overall message that children can take away—Mama’s love is constant no matter what challenges the family experiences. Nicky Johnston has given Mama’s chickens loads of personality so there is subtle humour in their antics that will intrigue and delight curious kids. There is also a lot of tenderness and empathy in the way Johnston renders Mama’s own experience of her disability and her interactions with her family, both the feathered and human members.
Mama’s Chickens treats a serious topic in just the way children need, touching clearly but gently on the changes Mama and her family are experiencing while keeping the focus on love and joy. The author’s own experience of early onset dementia is clear in every carefully chosen word, making this an exceptionally authentic treatment of an important topic that affects many families. Because Mama’s challenges (fatigue, forgetfulness, irritability) can be symptoms of many illnesses, the story will no doubt be a valuable tool for families experiencing all kinds of different challenges.
Morgane de Cadier (author) and Florian Pigé (illustrator)
Red Comet Press: 2021
Reviewed by Viv Young
Mister Fairy isn’t a morning fairy or a cleaning fairy or even a healing fairy, but he does have a magical gift to share.
Mister Fairy is a quirky, heart-warming story about finding and appreciating one’s gifts and the joy they bring to everyone. In the forest, Mister Fairy’s talents are not obvious but when he moves outside the forest it becomes clear that his powers of fun and frivolity have always been there, helping the forest creatures. Mister Fairy’s journey of discovery is reassuring for readers who may struggle to see their own unique qualities. The story’s resolution may help readers on their own journey of discovery as it suggests that by experiencing new people and places we can gain perspective in order to perceive our talents; a practical action that readers can try for themselves. Also, the array of fairy gifts mentioned in the text offers opportunities for caregivers to draw attention to all the different ways people (and fairies) contribute to the world.
The artwork for Mister Fairy is superb and will be particularly pleasing for readers who like fantasy and fairies without the gender stereotypes. Mister Fairy is a hilariously grumpy-looking elephant-like fairy who inhabits a forest filled with other whimsical animal-shaped fairies. The forest is full of rich muted colours and is contrasted effectively with the cold greys and browns of the human city, drawing attention, as the story progresses, to Mister Fairy’s latent gift for injecting colour and fun into the world. The animal-fairies’ world is never garish and always reminiscent of the natural world which gives the story a wonderful hint of possibility—could these creatures be the ‘true’ fairies at the bottom of our gardens?
Mister Fairy is a fun story to read with children and provides a gentle reminder to look deep for the gifts that are always there, however familiar or different they may be.
Frank the penguin is full of ideas but not all of them are good ones, so the other penguins are nervous when Frank knits a red hat, but should they be?
Frank’s Red Hat is a wickedly funny and poignant story about being different. Frank’s knitting ostensibly leads to trouble, but he persists and stays true to his passion with some interesting results. The humour is devilish and therefore perhaps for older preschool and school aged children but will definitely make most kids laugh out loud. The outcome is reassuring—Frank finds his tribe—but also realistic; one’s tribe isn’t always made up of the creatures one expects.
The artwork for Frank’s Red Hat is splendid. The tonal variation and different textures in Sean E Avery’s icy landscapes convey the cold and colourless nature of the world Frank struggles in while at the same time providing lots of interest for readers to explore. These landscapes draw attention to Frank’s experimental knitting and some of its hilarious results. Frank and the creatures who live around him are also wonderfully expressive, with their bulging eyes and flapping arms. Lastly, the unusual array of red hats adorning the end pages is sure to spark interest.
Frank’s Red Hat is a must for any child or adult who struggles to fit in. It is also an important book for everyone else, who may, after reading it, want to rethink their approach to the Franks of this world
A new girl called Winnie is joining the class and sometimes she howls like hyena or kicks like a kangaroo or chomps like a piranha. So, it’s time for everyone to get a bit wild …
Wild for Winnie tells the story of Winnie’s first week at a new school. Winnie experiences sensory processing challenges and her behaviour is affected as a result. Different behaviours that Winnie and her peers may find distressing are explored through analogy with various wild animals. With guided play, however, Winnie and her new classmates are taught ways to channel challenging sensory experiences into activities that benefit the whole class.
The story is told by a classmate (though the reader is not told which one) and this child-centred perspective is brought out thoughtfully in the illustrations. While the text never rebukes Winnie, the illustrations do allow the kids in Winnie’s class to express their surprise, pain, fear and enjoyment making this an excellent book for exploring emotions with young children. Moreover, not all the children experience Winnie’s behaviour in the same way; this is particularly useful for talking to kids with sensory processing challenges about the different responses and experiences of children around them.
The illustrations use muted bright colours which convey all the brightness of an early learning space but remain low-key and not too overwhelming. Winnie’s wild behaviour is conveyed through her body movements and also various animals that shadow her in the artwork. This creates some humour that kids are sure to enjoy! Hints in the text remind readers that Winnie’s ‘wild nature’ is not unique and the final spread draws attention to the different wild tendencies of the classmates on a particular day, making sure no kid is singled out.
Wild for Winnie is a sensitive, empathetic treatment of challenges many children experience with lots of real-world advice woven into the illustrations and text. It is useful for kids managing sensory processing challenges as well as kids who may have friends that behave like Winnie. Make sure you look closely at the end pages for a list of practical tips for parents and caregivers to try for different types of behaviour.
When Ruby is given shiny, red roller-skates for her birthday she is sure that learning to skate will be easy peasy, but it’s not!
Easy Peasy is an upbeat, high-energy story that conveys the thrill of roller-skating while also touching on some important themes like persistence, resilience and learning to learn. The author has a gentle and genuine voice. The heights of Ruby’s excitement, her initial instinct to give up when it is hard and her desire to roller-skate all by herself, without instruction, will be familiar to many readers. Ruby’s independent approach may make learning to roller skate tricky, but she is well supported to achieve her goals; Dad’s persistent yet kind attempts to offer instruction model a laid-back and patient style of parenting that many kids will appreciate. The positive and exciting outcome of the story sees Ruby manage a busy roller-skating rink filled with kids and music, making this an encouraging book for young readers finding it hard to meet those challenges close to their own hearts.
The artwork for Easy Peasy is super bright and fun, making sure the themes of persistence, resilience and learning are always child friendly and appealing. The psychedelic rainbow stripe rolling over the end pages is repeated at key stages in the book to underscore Ruby’s wibbly, wobbly moments on the roller skates and her eventual success. It is fun to spot and makes the challenges and achievements stand out. Ruby’s enticing pair of red, sparkly roller-skates also feature on every page, making it easy to follow the central character, her highs and lows. Lastly, Kids will have a ball spotting Ruby’s pet bird (unmentioned in the text) who is as keen as Ruby to learn a new skill!
Catharina Valckx (author), Anthony Shugaar (translator)
Gecko Press: 2022
Reviewed by Viv Young
Good friends, Lisette and Bobbi, are trying out a ‘big lie’ about going to the mountains. Unexpectedly, their friend Popof decides to join them and they have a fabulous day on a kind of mountain. But will Lisette’s mum believe what she did?
This quirky story about lying treats a serious topic with a light touch and in so doing is thought-provoking and accessible for young children. The author treats lying in an age-appropriate fashion, bringing out the innocent way in which children often go about lying and why. Nevertheless, the potential for trouble in Popof’s decision to join Lisette and Bobbi and the question of whether their adventure will be believed gives children plenty of opportunities to think about the challenges that lying can create without being censorious.
The artwork for Lisette’s Lie brings out all the innocence of the lie itself. The button eyed bird (Lisette) and her small froggy companion (Bobbi) are sweet and also hilarious as they enjoy their day around the ‘mountain’. The backgrounds are muted pinks, greys and mauves that allow the bright patches of colour to distinguish key characters and their movements throughout the day. A particular treat is the polka dot endpages that foreground the fun that is to be had reading this beautiful story about a tricky topic.
Alexandra Penfold (author) and Suzanne Kaufman (illustrator)
Reviewed by Viv Young
A group of children negotiate conflict, disappointment and differing perspectives as they play in their local park.
Big feelings is an uplifting and practical exploration of children’s play and their big feelings. As the child characters explore their local park and experience various problems with each other and their environment their big feelings come and go. There is a recurring set of questions ‘How can I help? What can we do?’ woven (with a few variations) into the playful rhyming text that can help children consider how best to navigate conflict, such as co-operation and looking at things from a different perspective. There is also validating recognition of the range of big feelings that such conflict can create.
The child characters, not identified in the text, are beautifully rendered in the illustrations. There are lots of bright, messy colours that capture play and its ups and downs. The range of expressions on the children’s faces help explore all the emotions mentioned in the text and add great humour too. The end pages present portraits of the children featured throughout the story and are a wonderful resource for parents wishing to talk about specific emotions, moreover, they show a variety of children from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Big Feelings is a visually enticing resource for families that uses up-to-date language and attitudes to explore emotions with young children in a fun and reassuring way.
Coral Vass (author) and Nicky Johnston (illustrator)
EK Books: 2022
Reviewed by Viv Young
Jorn’s Magnificent Imagination tells the surprising story of the architect who designed, arguably, the most famous building in Australia—the Sydney Opera House. It focuses especially on Jorn’s creative engagement with the natural world and the disparate range of responses to his creativity. While Jorn always has supporters, especially in his parents, even from an early age he suffers criticism, yet persists.
Picture books emphasising resilience are increasingly popular and Jorn’s Magnificent Imagination is a fantastic addition to this corpus because of its subtlety and its basis in fact. Jorn’s resilience in the face of quite public disapproval is an uplifting story for anyone—young or old—with its emphasis on believing in oneself and one’s talents. While the story is a wonderful vehicle for discussing resilience, it is also a fascinating biography suitable for young children and useful for parents or teachers wishing to explore a key Australian architectural monument. The end pages include a timeline of Jorn Utzon’s career that provides additional facts. The dedication to Jorn and his family also draws attention to the ‘real’ people behind the story, potentially creating an interesting topic of conversation for kids starting to think about history, fiction and non-fiction.
The artwork for Jorn’s Magnificent Imagination makes fascinating use of brown and grey shades in spreads that deal both with Jorn’s design work and the media response to it. This strategic use of sepia tones conveys a sense of memory and nostalgia appropriate to the subject matter and useful for discussing time and history with young children. The colours are otherwise light and bright; they draw out the fun and joy that Jorn’s young imagination brings to himself, his parents and the world. The text emphasises the way in which Jorn’s environment and everyday life spark his imagination but leaves open the influences on his finished architectural work. The illustrations run with this open-ended narrative, creating opportunities for children to ponder the natural influences on the artist and to consider what forms and shapes may be worth noticing in their own environment.
Jorn’s Magnificent Imagination is a moving account of a tumultuous creative career that may well inspire young readers to believe in and forge their own creative connection with the world around them.
Elyse Shellie (author) and Evie Barrow (Illustrator)
New Frontier Publishing: 2022
Reviewed by Viv Young
The Little Book of Hopes expresses the hopes of a parent for a child with a particular focus on the growth of the child’s emotional and ethical wellbeing. There are those hopes for how a child will interact with others (e.g.: ‘I hope that you’ll invite kids of ALL spots and stripes to play’) and also hopes that nurture an adventurous sense of self (e.g.: ‘I hope that you’ll find wonder in big things and in small …’). This combination balances guidance with encouragement and fun. All the parent’s hopes for the future culminate in one special desire to see the child happy to be themselves.
The artwork for The Little Book of Hopes is brimming with bright colours. The pencil work gives these colours a soft texture that radiates warmth and tenderness. Many spreads are accented with yellow and this imbues the whole story with that timeless quality of a long summer. While the book begins and ends with an image of a father and baby, the spreads feature the kids on the back and front cover and therefore portray diversity in culture, skin/hair colour and ability. The scenes of play are full of detail and spirit; some are even wondrous, such as the magnificent treehouse with spiral steps.
The Little Book of Hopes is a thoughtful and encouraging story for children of all ages. It is also a unique ‘baby book’, perfect for new parents who are imagining their child’s bright future. Indeed the gentle rhyme makes it lovely to read aloud as a bedtime book. The teaching notes may help both parents and teachers explore some of the text and its real-world significance (e.g.: inclusivity).
In a tall apartment tower two young musicians are learning to play their instruments—a violin and a cello. They form a ‘mystery friendship’ by sending paper planes to each other with music written on them, but will they become ‘real’ friends?
Reading this unique picture book with young kids starting to learn an instrument is a lovely way to inspire and encourage. Without any didactic moments, it portrays the dedication and practice that is necessary to learn an instrument, moreover, the scores the young musicians send to each other are reproduced in the book, providing an exciting and practical component to the story for children learning either the violin or cello. For kids learning a different instrument, the story provides an enticing prompt to compose music for themselves and with friends. Violin and Cello is also a delightful story for any child with its themes of friendship. Indeed, it can help parents encourage kids to find friends with common interests and to be patient as friendships develop gradually over time.
The artwork for Violin and Cello is full of the kind of detail kids love to investigate; over the apartment building the reader sees the intriguing roofs of different kinds of buildings, then there is all the clutter in rooms and gardens as well. The brown and grey scenes of city and apartment life seem cheery dotted with all the bright, warm colours used to portray people, clothes, belongings and plants. The busyness and colour of the artworks convey all the happiness and joy that a home filled with music brings to a family.
Violin and Cello is a unique story about friendship and music that can encourage young musicians or inspires those yet to start playing.
Christine Peck and Mags Deroma (authors) and Mags Deroma (illustrator)
Reviewed by Viv Young
Izzy’s thought bubbles keep ‘pop, pop, popping up’ until there is no room left for Izzy, but she knows some useful ways to make room for herself and her thoughts.
Too Many Bubbles follows Izzy, a small grey mouse, on her quest for a quieter mind. Izzy’s journey begins with a single ‘sort of grumpy’ thought that multiplies and becomes oppressive. The idea of busy and cumulative thoughts is otherwise kept quite general, making this story a good one for lots of different children and their various thoughts and emotions. There is also an overall practical focus in this mindfulness book. For instance, the reader is asked to help Izzy by gently blowing on her thoughts, thus beginning one of the approaches to mindfulness—breathing—that is discussed at the back of the book. Several other practical tips to help kids practise mindfulness are also discussed here.
The artwork for Too Many Bubbles uses bright, block colours and white space to great effect. The white space, for example, helps to focus the reader’s attention both on the first grumpy thought bubble and then the oppressive cumulation of thoughts as they fill the white page and obscure Izzy herself. The choice of colours is thought-provoking—they are bright colours, primarily in warm shades of red, orange and yellow but there are also some cool tones. For this reader they were a useful reminder that busy thoughts may range around the full gamut of emotions. Overall, the bright colours feel fun and cheerful; they may attract some boisterous young children who are otherwise repelled by books on calm topics.
Too Many Bubbles is a gentle, practical introduction to mindfulness with bright, lively illustrations likely to interest young children.