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
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).
“I am enough” by Grace Byers is a series of powerful statements describing and celebrating the purpose and value of each child. It uses similes based on children’s experiences and activities to make connections between these and positive character traits, such as “Like the moon, I’m here to dream, like the student, here to learn”.
The pulsating rhythm of the text leads the reader, or listener, through a series of possible experiences of self, or life. It then guides them towards the idea that “I’m not meant to be like you: you’re not meant to be like me” and culminates with the logical conclusion that therefore, everyone should “say together, I am enough”.
It tackles common childhood challenges such as losing a race and coping with difference. The text is gender neutral however the illustrations are all of young primary school aged girls, suggesting a theme of female empowerment based not in competition but in companionship.
The illustrations, as noted in the book, are acrylic paintings overlaid on simple digital chalk drawings. The simple chalk lines indicate place, such as a park or bedroom, while the acrylic paintings of the characters are beautifully detailed and three dimensional. Many cultural backgrounds are represented in the illustrations, mostly indicated by variations in skin tone and hair, and occasionally by dress. The illustrator has also taken care to vary the height, shape and weight of all the characters and has included one young girl in a wheelchair. As such, it is possible that many female readers will find a point of reference for themselves and/or their friends.
After Milly and her father plant a mulberry tree, her life becomes linked to the love and belonging she finds within and under its branches.
Milly and the Mulberry Tree touches on a variety of themes, such as belonging, family, nature and exploration, that can help parents nurture their child’s developing sense of self. The tender scene showing Milly and her father planting the mulberry tree and her desire to be under the tree at key life moments like her wedding invite readers to think about how nature is involved in our sense of belonging and how it strengthens our sense of connection with other people. While family and love are key themes which lend this story a fairy tale quality, Milly’s personal interests are equally important. Her childhood passion for mulberries and silkworms leads believably to an interest in silk and fashion which in turn lead to travel. This dual focus on family and career feels well rounded and appropriate for this generation of young children.
The illustrations for Milly and the MulberryTree are full of the pinks and purples characteristic of the mulberry. These deep warm colours complement the heart-warming text. They also provide a striking contrast with the bright green leaves of the tree that is so central to the story. The artwork’s stylised flowers, floral end pages and depiction of patterned cloth are visually enticing and enhance the interest in fashion that is developed in the story.
Few picture books follow the course of a child’s life into adulthood; Milly and the Mulberry Tree provides a rare opportunity to encourage children to imagine their own futures and ponder where their own childhood interests might lead them.
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.
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.
Joffrey the Giraffe has spots not stripes. When the herd questions his physical appearance, Joffrey goes on a journey of self-discovery.
How to be a Giraffe is a fun rhyming story with a great galloping pace. There are loads of laughs as Joffrey attempts to find his ‘tribe’ among a host of animals from bees to crocodiles. There are also opportunities for meaningful conversations woven into the fun. The subtle contrast between physical appearance and behaviour (Joffrey looks a little different but he acts like a giraffe) may help kids discuss how much physical appearance really matters. The herd’s hurtful remarks when questioning Joffrey about his appearance also worry the young giraffe enough to make him question his place in the herd. While the herd eventually has a change of heart there are, nevertheless, clear cues for discussing how language can cause distress.
The artwork for How to Be a Giraffe matches the light-hearted tone of the overall story. The colours are pale and bright—it feels like the sun shines on the animals in their animal groups and this makes a great contrast with those scenes of Joffrey (almost) alone in the darkness of the night. The use of pattern adds to the texture of the animals’ world and enables young readers to see similarity and difference in the environment and among the other animals.
This is a great first book about difference and about finding your place in the world.