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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.