Three very different picture books here, all by Australian authors.
Giinagay Gaagal (Hello Ocean) by Gumbayngirr artist Melissa Greenwood (who also created My Little Barlaagany (Sunshine) among others.) It’s a celebration of the ocean and its pleasures: swimming, fishing, running on the sand, collecting pipis and shells. In the story the aunties share cultural knowledge and wisdom as well as fun:
But first, before walking on Country, we talk to the landGiinagay Gaagal (Hello Ocean)
and let her know that we are here to play.
We are grateful for what she has to offer,
we promise to take care of her during our stay.
I’m always delighted to see new books incorporating First Nations languages. It’s a gentle way to introduce young readers to the multiplicity of cultures and languages that flourished in Australia before colonisation, some of which are still in use or are being revived.
The illustrations are gorgeous, incorporating the colours of sea and sand.
Fans of Jackie French will welcome her latest picture book, The Turtle and the Flood, a companion to the wonderful The Fire Wombat. Fire and flood are the bookends of natural disaster events in this country, and our children experience them all too often.
Learning about how native animals have evolved to survive these events is one way of coming to understand the natural cycles of our land.
We are introduced to Myrtle the long necked turtle, who can sense a coming flood (even before the rains begin) and makes her long slow climb uphill to a safe spot, out of the reach of the water.
She is joined by others (snakes, wombats, water dragons, wallabies.) The animals are guided by Myrtle’s wisdom and understanding of her environment.
There are lovely soft illustrations by Danny Snell which bring Myrtle’s journey to colourful life.
The third book in my selection is a change of pace. The first in a new series featuring Bunny and Bird, How to Hatch a Dragon is a sweetly hilarious story about the importance of observation and paying attention. The two friends are so engrossed in the instruction booklet that came with their dragon egg that they completely miss most of the action!
Little ones will get the humour, as they can see in the pictures what’s going on behind Bunny and Bird’s backs.
Three new books to delight: Giinagay Gaagal, The Turtle and the Flood, and How to Hatch a Dragon are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September and October, 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for review copies.
There is a very welcome trend in books for very young readers that focus on the amazing variety of cultures, languages and traditions across the globe, while emphasizing the things we all share.
In My Garden is a lovely addition to these, celebrating as it does the attractions of the outdoors and nature across a range of landscapes.
We visit a little girl who lives on a river boat in Laos, another in Australia’s tropical north, a boy in New Zealand who watches over little penguin nests and one who sees the rubble of bombed out buildings in war-torn Syria.
Other landscapes and gardens are from Iceland, Japan, America, Malawi, Canada, Italy and Brazil.
No matter where the children live, they are all nurtured by the beauties of nature, even little Sami who holds a pine cone from a garden not far from his apartment, which helps him remember Crocuses, tulips and the great Aleppo pine. That garden is his favourite place. He is remembering something there.
The pages are filled with detail and colour and are truly lovely. Young children can spend time identifying and perhaps naming the various plants and animals they can find, as they absorb the truth that children are children the world over.
In My Garden celebrates and honours the role that nature plays in all our lives, no matter where we live.
It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in August 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
One of the nicest ways to welcome a new baby into the world is to gift the start of a children’s book library. The four books mentioned in this post would all earn their place there.
Board books are perfect for babies and very young toddlers. Robust, able to stand up to chewing, throwing, and dribbling, they offer hours of tactile fun, colourful pictures and simple repetitive text.
That’s not my kitten, by Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells, is the newest addition to the That’s not my… series, and includes all of these features. Babies can see the five different kittens, touch a furry tongue, a smooth kitten nose, a shiny bell, rough paws, and a fluffy tummy, while learning to turn pages and recite the repetitive text along with whoever is reading aloud.
Moving along in age, for older toddlers and pre-schoolers there is another in the Playschool series by Jan Stradling and Jenna Robaard, called Beginnings and Endings. The series helps littlies to explore feelings: in this case, sadness.
Little Ted’s friends want to help him feel better when his pet goldfish dies. A special scrapbook of Swish memories, a picnic in the garden, spotting baby birds in a nest and flowers blooming all help, as do a hug and talking about Swish and his memories. The soft illustrations reinforce the gentle theme of the story, that life challenges are best tackled with friends by your side.
One Little Duck by Katrina Germein brings memories of the children’s rhyme ‘Five Little Ducks’ but it’s a story with a twist. Instead of losing a duckling with each verse, in this story Mother Duck has forgotten how to quack, so each time she calls her duckling to her, she gains a new animal, until she has a menagerie following along. The rhyming verses invite youngsters to join in:
One little duck went out one day,One Little Duck
over the hills and far away.
Mother Duck said…
and Cow said,
Wait! Now I’m coming too
Danny Snell’s illustrations are sweetly humorous and children will enjoy Mother Duck’s dilemma as she finds new friends, and at the end is reunited with her baby.
Two Sides to Every Story by Robin Feiner explores the many choices and dilemmas that life can present. Boiled or fried eggs? Meat or vegetables? Is a dog or a cat the best pet? History or science? Country or city? Jacket and tie or lucky T-shirt?
Oscar has to decide on these and other choices in his day to day life, and deals with each one with his skill of ‘mental gymnastics’.
Oscar had a special way of looking at things.Two sides to every story
He took his subject, he twisted it this way
and that. He tumbled it all around…
inside out, and outside in, exploring it
every which way.
The illustrations by Beck Feiner are in bold, block colours and bring to life Oscar’s tumbling, turning way of looking at his world.
If you are building a children’s library, these four books would make perfect additions.
They are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in July and August 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for copies to review.
What a beautiful debut book this is.
With lush, gorgeous illustrations by Perth-based Jennifer Faulkner, The Lucky Shack tells the story of a simple cottage by the sea, built and cared for by a fisherman.
One day a frightening storm strikes and the fisherman does not return. The shack feels alone and neglected…until a fisherwoman finds it and once more, the place is loved and lived in.
The story celebrates the colours, depths and beauty of nature, along with human connection and love.
There is a wonderful assortment of vocabulary for younger readers to absorb, enriching the narrative and introducing beautiful new words to try:
Boats pass me by.
I creak my tired floorboards with loud groans,
but they don’t stop.
I flicker the porch light,
like the lighthouse on the cliff
sending codes in the night.
I let go of a precious window shutter
to send a message into the deep blue,
to anyone who will listen.
This is a gorgeous addition to any child’s bookshelf.
The Lucky Shack is published by Working Title Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in July 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy.
Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution is book no 3 in Jackie French’s superb series of middle-grade historical fiction, ‘Girls Who Changed the World’. These stories are all about putting women and girls back into the historical record.
In this book, Ming is sent by Herstory back to the 1800’s, on a sailing ship heading from Europe to Australia. Her companion, Hilde, is one of several girls looking after royal Saxon sheep that are being imported, to add to the flocks of Merino sheep made famous by the Macarthurs, amongst others.
I love that Ming has to guess at the specific timeframe she is in, judging it by the various historical facts she knows. And as always, she needs to work out which girl she meets will change the world, and how.
This particular setting and scenario were new to me: I knew nothing of this particular breed of sheep and how it contributed to the success of the Australian wool industry in the nineteenth century. Which is odd, seeing as how in my primary school classes we learnt all about how Australia ‘rode on the sheep’s back’ – until mineral resources overtook wool as a major export a century or so later.
Not so odd, though, when you think about it. Because according to this story, it was the young women shepherds from the part of Europe that later became Germany, who went on to demonstrate a radical new way of taking the fleece from the sheep – ushering in the technique that we now recognise as ‘shearing’. And yet, the quintessential image of Australian shearing is a Tom Roberts painting, featuring muscled bronze men grappling with woolly sheep in a colonial shearing shed.
Another example of girls and women being written out of history.
Young readers can learn these gems of history from this book, along with an understanding of earlier attitudes to Asian and First Nations Australians, the sexism taken for granted in colonial society, and attitudes to crime and punishment. The daily life on a wealthy rural estate is portrayed beautifully, especially the contrast between conditions for the rich and poor.
And as always in a Jackie French novel, the past and present are both shown in a balanced way, neither wholly bad nor wholly good. The actions that bring about change often have unforeseen and unintended consequences – the environmental consequences of colonialism and the introduction of animals such as sheep, being one example in this book.
The poor bare hills, the animals killed or driven off, and the people of this land too. The country had seemed so beautiful as they passed through it, not wild at all, but tended enough to keep its natural beauty. But we’re in the past, she reminded herself. This is the beginning of the Australia I live with today: most of its forests cleared, its rivers shrinking, its wetlands drained, so many animals extinct of in danger of it.Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution p150-151
This was how it began.
Ming is a delightful, thoughtful character, learning more about herself, her country and its past each time she is sent on another adventure by Herstory. I can’t wait to see where and when she lands next time.
Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution is published by HarperCollins Children’s Publishing in June 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Sheena Knowles and Rod Clement’s Australian classic Edward the Emu turns 35 this year. It was first published in 1988 – the year my son was born (which, I admit, makes me feel a teensy bit old!)
Luckily, books age much slower than their readers and this one is as fresh today as it was then.
It tells the story of Edward, an emu who has become bored with his life at the zoo.
He decides to join some of the other animals for a while, to sample what seems to be a much more exciting existence.
The rhyming verses invite youngsters to join in or read aloud.
Edward the Emu was sick of the zoo.Edward the Emu
There was nowhere to go, there was nothing to do.
And compared to the seals that lived right next door,
Well being an emu was frankly a bore.
Firstly he is in with the seals, then the lions, the snakes…until things turn around full-circle, and he realises that the emus are the best animals in the zoo after all.
The little twist at the end is a laugh-out-loud moment, as are the comical expressions on Edward’s face.
It’s a sweet story about falling for the ‘grass is greener’ phenomenon and about living and loving your own life.
Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins, re-releases this timeless picture book in 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
This beautiful picture book by Gumbaynggirr author and artist Melissa Greenwood reads as a bedtime story from a mother to her child.
With soft illustrations in pastel and ochre shades, it is a perfect introduction to a First Nations language and contemporary art style for very young Australians.
The text follows the path of the sun and moon across a day and night, incorporating words and phrases from her Gumbaynggirr language from the mid-north coast of NSW.
As the sun shines throughout the day,My Little Barlaagany
it warms your cheeks while we play.
As the sun sets in the evening sky,
say, ‘Yaarri Yarraang, goodbye.’
Now it’s time for Giidany (the moon) to rise
and we say, “Darrundang, thank you,’
for the gift of the night skies.
It is wonderful to see First Nations language included in texts for children, and I look forward to more works of this kind to add to children’s bookshelves across the country.
My Little Barlaagany was published by ABC Books and HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy.
Opening this book for younger readers conjured memories of the way a new book from the school or public library (or better yet, under the Christmas tree!) made me feel when I was a child. Something about the cover illustration and the first few pages brought back the pleasure of anticipating a new story. I’m pretty sure this book would have appealed to an eight-year-old me.
Olive is a schoolgirl in country South Australia. She longs for a pet rabbit, but rabbits have been a feral pest in Australian farms and bushland since they were first introduced during British colonisation. Her beloved grandpa has just bought ‘Bunny Rid’ poison to clear their farm of the wild creatures, so she knows that a pet bunny must remain a dream.
Then one day, one hundred fluffy white bunnies arrive at her house, accompanied by a talking black rabbit called Robbit.
She has to work out how to hide the rabbits until she and Robbit can get them back to where they came from: a small town in England. Also, how is the velvet top hat she bought from a local op-shop connected to the mystery of how the rabbits got to Australia in the first place?
I loved the character of Olive: she is smart, adventurous, and compassionate; all qualities that allow her (with help from her friends) to outwit a villain and rescue Robbit and his bunny buddies. Through it all Olive learns that expressing her opinion is okay, and to have faith in her ability to problem solve.
I also enjoyed the setting: a very contemporary Aussie farm, Massey-Ferguson tractor and all, with a contemporary farming family (and a FIFO dad who works at a mine) coping with the ups and downs of rural life – including a potential rabbit plague.
There is a gentle environmentally themed message which underlies both Olive’s dilemma with the rabbits and the theme of her class play (the reason she bought the Marvello top hat from the op-shop, to become part of her costume.)
This story allows children to imagine the wonder and absurdities inherent in fluffy bunnies, magic and an enchanted hat. It’s a fun read that will be enjoyed by younger middle-grade readers. The lovely black and white illustrations by Lavanya Naidu draw the reader further into the story and Olive’s world.
The Hats of Marvello is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Jackie French is back with another historical story mixed with a touch of speculative fiction: Book #2 in the ‘Girls Who Changed the World’ series for middle grade readers.
Book #1 introduced Ming Qong, a twelve-year-old Australian girl who wants more from her school history lessons than the stories of men who won wars or invented things. Where were all the girls and women? Didn’t they do important things too, things that changed the world? Why aren’t their stories told?
In Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom, Ming is thrown back to the time of World War I, to Belgium in 1916. This time, her brother Tuan is with her.
They meet Marie, a youngster like them. Marie’s parents were killed, and her village and home destroyed by the German army, early in the war. Gradually Ming realises that Marie is working with the resistance group called ‘La Dame Blanche’ (The White Lady.) These women, men, girls and boys work locally, observing German troop movements, counting ammunition deliveries at the local railway station, passing food and supplies to those in need, hiding Belgians or Allied soldiers wanted by the Germans. They work in great secrecy: Ming and Tuan learn to guard what they say.
Ming even learns to knit in order to create coded messages in a scarf or quilt square that communicates important information via signals in the number or type of stitches: movements of troop trains, numbers of soldiers, trains carrying ordnance, dates and times. This was a technique actually used in Belgium by women during the war – one thing you can always count on in a Jackie French novel is the accuracy of historical details she includes.
The other type of work Ming experiences is foraging for firewood and food to feed and warm the orphans cared for in an unofficial ‘home’ by local women. Keeping civilians alive during wartime is also a form of resistance, usually performed by women and girls.
The clue to how Ming’s presence helps to change the trajectory of the war is revealed at the end. But the underlying message is threaded right throughout the story: the often overlooked and hidden role that women have always played in world history.
World War I was – big. A million stories or a million million, the story of every person who was there, or was affected by it across the world, for generations after it happened. Women’s stories had been lost in its vastness…Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom p 271-272
‘Hundreds of thousands of women, possibly millions, all through that war,’ said Herstory quietly. ‘The women of World War I are remembered as nurses or mothers, sisters, wives or sweethearts waiting for the men they loved, not as resistance workers, intelligence agents, soldiers and others who fought too. So much work, and sacrifice and courage, all deleted. Tell their stories, because even now the world seems intent on forgetting.’
There are some difficult scenes, including an explosion of a trainload of mustard gas, the diabolical new German weapon to be unleashed at the front. Readers are not spared the suffering of those in the path of war.
Importantly, there is also hope for the future, and an emphasis that it can be small actions by unseen or overlooked people, that can result in big changes to make the world a better place.
Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in August 2022.
Australian author Katrina Nannestad is back with another in her series for middle-grade readers, about children in WWII Europe. This one is about Polish youngsters stolen by the Nazis to further their hideous Lebensborn program, during which children and babies who looked ‘Aryan’ were taken to be Germanised and adopted into German families.
All of the stories are about empathy: understanding that there are always many ‘sides’ in warfare, and that children and non-combatants are always the victims, regardless of which side they come from.
In Waiting for the Storks, Zofia is eight years old when she is kidnapped and taken away to become a ‘good German girl.’ The story accurately and sympathetically captures the ways in which brainwashing techniques such as punishment and reward, isolation and repetition are used to achieve the desired outcome – in this case, a complete obliteration of Zofia’s memories of her loving Polish family and home, and adoption of her new German identity.
There are small acts of resistance. A lovely scene is in the camp as the children are forced to learn German, where they use the meaningless phrases they are being taught in a way that expresses their defiance:
The nurse nods, satisfied. She walks away, but we keep speaking in German, because nurses have stethoscope ears and pinchy fingers and slappy hands and bad tempers.Waiting for the Storks p76
‘Hello’, says Kat, ‘I am a boy.’
‘Hello, says Jadwiga, rubbing her bald head. ‘I am a potato.’
‘Goodbye,’ says Maria. ‘I must go to the bathroom.’
We’re giggling now, sniggering into our soup. Even little Ewa. It’s brilliant, because we’re obeying the rules with our words, but not in our hearts.
A family game (‘Make a choice!) is used effectively as a motif throughout the story. So, where the choices with her parents were fun and light-hearted (Cream on your salami or gravy on your poppyseed cake? Make a choice!) they now become a survival strategy (Polish or German? Make a choice! and Orphan or beloved daughter? Make a choice!)
The descriptions of the ‘Germanisation’ process are quite realistic and troubling. This is a book for mature younger readers who can deal with themes of sadness, loss, cruelty. The rewards are many, though, including a deeper understanding of the best and worst in humans. There is light and hope at the end which I believe is important for readers of this age group.
Waiting for the Storks is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.