Mama’s Chickens by Michelle Worthington and Nicky Johnson

Mama’s Chickens

Michelle Worthington (author) and Nicky Johnston (Illustrator)

EK Books: 2023

ISBN: 9781922539458

Age: 4+

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.

Tomorrow is a Brand-New Day by Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys

Tomorrow is a Brand-New Day

Davina Bell (author) and Allison Colpoys (illustrator)

Scribble: 2021

ISBN: 9781925849462

Reviewed by Viv Young

With lyrical, rhyming text the story of two girls and their day of questionable choices unfolds but don’t worry, they’ll be fine; tomorrow is a brand-new day.

The illustrations for this fabulous book about mistakes and moving on from them follows two female friends as they navigate a tricky day. The text works with the images but simultaneously addresses the audience, thereby encouraging all kids to identify with the challenges and emotions explored in the story. The central characters variously act impulsively, push, pull faces, chuck tantrums and fail to share as the difficulties they encounter and their feelings about them snowball throughout the course of the day. Most kids should, therefore, be able to recognise aspects of their own challenging days in the pages somewhere, if not the overall tendency for bad days to get worse. The fact that the friends fall out and make up again is also useful for parents looking for books about friendship, both its up and downs.

While bad days aren’t usually all that fun to talk about, Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys bring out the humour in ‘bad’ behaviour, moreover they empathise with the emotions at the heart of it all (‘You were tired! Worried. Scared’). With guidance, this empathy can help kids make important connections between feelings and poor decision making. This approach can also help kids feel understood too. The resolution of the story is uplifting as the two characters find ways to make up with those who they have hurt. There is also the overall feeling of acceptance and focus on the future that helpfully puts mistakes in their place as things everyone experiences and that we can all move on from.

The artwork for Tomorrow is a Brand-New Day is bursting with colour and this matches both the positive treatment of mistake-making and the chaos that sometimes leads to mistakes. The exaggerated expressions of the two central characters are fantastic for exploring a range of emotions with young kids. Moreover, various spreads interpret the open-ended text and lead to lots of humour and opportunities for kids to follow the pictures and work out what happened to encourage certain feelings. The end pages are worth pondering with young ones. They are a mass of great swirling rainbows, intertwined and confusing. For this reader they encapsulated the messiness of mistakes and self-acceptance that this book celebrates so sweetly.

One of several recent books that speaks to a growth mindset, Tomorrow is a Brand-New Day is an intelligent and fun story that normalises making mistakes and moving on from them.

On Kids Keeping Books Badly …

Viv Young

Photo of Treehouse books laid out as engine parts for a spaceship.

Recently I responded to a Facebook query about encouraging children to care for their books. The parent posting for advice described how their own child would leave books lying around, bend spines, and dog-ear pages. I smiled, certain of my reply as I set my teacup down on a stack of half read paperbacks. Then, as I looked around at the dishevelled shelves and floor-books among the general mess I faltered.

I have long been aware that I am a bad keeper of books. I not only rest teacups on book covers, I too dog-ear pages and even crack spines. My husband is, in contrast, a model keeper of books. He gently peers through barely open pages. He keeps books away from all liquids. He remembers page numbers so that he never needs a bookmark.  We combined our library long ago and you can tell whose books are whose and whose books have been read by whom.

That is why I know that I am 100% to blame for our son’s current approach to looking after his library. He loves books, don’t get me wrong, but they are as much played with as read. As objects of play books are stepped on, stacked and toppled dramatically. Like stuffed toys they are discarded (on the floor) when the play takes an unexpected turn. For all this rough usage, my son’s books are remarkably intact which is a testament both to his deep-rooted love of their contents but also the manufacturing standards of modern printing and binding.

 A playful approach to books should be lauded, right? The legendary Margaret Wild imagines her central character in The Bush Book Club using books for all kinds of playful construction. But then that character is a reluctant reader who cannot sit still long enough to listen to a story. A lesson seems to lurk in the pages: inspire the reader within and books will stop being used for purposes other than reading.

Cover of The Bush Book Club by Margaret Wild and Been Wood

The story arc of The Bush Book Club swirled through my mind along with the floor-books and dishevelled shelves as I wrote my reply. In the end I took the middle ground. I dutifully commended the Mum for being so vigilant, divulged my own terrible record and recommended putting any prize hardbacks up high. The middle ground usually feels safe but the question of how children should treat books and my own example continued to worry me. Would my son grow up to read books or use them to prop up wonky table legs?

My gnawing parental insecurity lingered until I watched my son play with his collection of Andy Griffiths’s and Terry Denton’s Treehouse books over the course of a whole day while recovering from a winter cold.  Our collection of Treehouse books has been used repeatedly for purposes of play, and read thoroughly too. On this particular day several titles were deployed as engine parts for a spaceship, fed to an imaginary donkey and lovingly arranged as ‘how to guides’ for a supervillain cat. The latter repurposing seemed particularly apt.

 If it hadn’t been for that parent’s post, I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to my son’s interaction with his books over the course of a whole day. But I’m glad I paid attention because it gave me pause to really look at what was happening and to feel confident that for us at least a relaxed approach to books is best. You see if I were to insist on keeping books on the shelves and in good order all of the time, I am not at all certain that my son would feel comfortable playing with them. That play is essential. The contents of the Treehouse books (and all the other titles my son repurposes) cannot be separated from his games; they are the props but also the inspiration. This is the reason why, I’m sure, my son continues to love listening to stories even though he can take or leave a home-reader and recoils from a list of sight words.

So, should I see another worried parent ask about their child keeping books badly, I will not hesitate to respond, nor will I feel the need to occupy the middle ground. I will be recommending with far greater confidence that books need to be accessible, everyday objects, even if that does mean a few spines get cracked along the way.

Daddy’s Rainbow by Lucy Rowland and Becky Cameron

Daddy’s Rainbow

Lucy Rowland (author) and Becky Cameron (illustrator)
Bloomsbury: 2022
ISBN: 9781526615770
Age: 3+

Reviewed by Viv Young

Erin’s Dad always encourages her to enjoy the magic of colours around her but when he becomes sick and passes away, Erin’s world becomes grey until she finds a way to remember her Dad.

Daddy’s Rainbow is a sensitive story about grief and loss for young children that convincingly portrays the loss of a parent from the child’s experience. The treatment of the father’s illness and death is subtle and focused on the experience of Erin—Daddy is ‘poorly’, there is the hospital, handholding, hugs and then quiet. This account of illness and death is moving and feels authentic, moreover its subtlety allows readers to explore what is happening to a degree they feel comfortable with. Daddy’s illness and death is also not the key focus but rather Erin’s joyful relationship with her father and the excitement of his passion for colours. After Daddy’s passing, the memory of this passion brings the family together. While Erin initiates the memory of colour, her mum then takes the lead. This conclusion provides a reassuring message for children; adults in their life can help them with their grief.  

Colour is a key part of the story in Daddy’s Rainbow and Becky Cameron’s illustrations make the most of it. Key scenes use contrasting greys and bright colour, light and dark shades that draw attention to the magic of colour in the story. The use of water colours enhances the story at every turn—rainy and snowy weather feature in the text and the watercolours portray these scenes in a striking manner. Lastly, the chosen medium (watercolour) seems to encourage readers to fully appreciate the vivid yet elusive nature of memory itself.

Daddy’s Rainbow is a poignant story that can help young children and their families explore a challenging topic. 

Milly and the Mulberry Tree by Vikki Conley and Deb Hudson

Milly and the Mulberry Tree

Vikki Conley & Deb Hudson

EK Books: 2022

ISBN: 9781922539120

Age: 4+

Reviewed by Viv Young

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 Mulberry Tree 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.