As Christmas approaches, we look forward to the traditions of this Yuletide season. Stockings hanging on the mantlepiece, tinsel and paper chains decorating the house, gingerbread, and fruit mince tarts in the pantry. Some traditions may be unique to your family, some are unique to whole countries. This story is based on a special tradition that has been continuing for over 70 years between Norway and Britain.
Every year, from the snowy, white landscape of Norway, a spruce tree is chosen to be cut down and sent to the city of London. There, in Trafalgar Square, it is decorated with lights and baubles, a symbol of Christmas and a thankyou from one nation to another for special deeds performed during WWII.
This picture book illustrates the poem created by Julia Donaldson to remember the time when Britain sheltered the King of Norway during the second world war.
From the point of view of the tree, we read about how this Queen of the Forest, a Norwegian spruce tree, is chosen, nurtured, felled, and sent via ship and over land to London.
If trees could have thoughts, I would like to think that it was happy indeed to have given its life for this special commemoration in 2020. Julia Donaldson’s gentle rhyming prose is beautifully illustrated by Victoria Sandøy, a celebrated Norwegian artist, and together they make this a picture book to keep and treasure.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 3-8 years and below are more suggestions for picture books which feature Christmas trees:
Caterpillars, cocoons, butterflies, and moths. The transformative process of being one thing and becoming something else is one of the miracles of life. And in this story, that’s not the only surprise waiting in store for the reader. Filled with bright, beautiful colours and catchy singsong chanting rhymes, four very different caterpillars discover that what you are today, is not necessarily what you will be all your life!
The star of this story is a dandelion-loving, brown, fluffy, and very ordinary looking woolly bear caterpillar. When the dandelions she loves to eat are pulled up by the gardener, the woolly bear caterpillar must crawl off to search for some new ones.
On the way she encounters a stunning sycamore caterpillar who boasts about her gorgeous coat of red and yellow. A bit further on, there is a vapourer caterpillar proudly showing off tufts of yellow hair all along its purple and red body. Lastly, on the boughs of a towering poplar tree, a puss moth caterpillar sings about the weird, wonderful, and strange red markings covering its face.
Poor woolly bear caterpillar. She has been teased and taunted about her plain brown looks. The other caterpillars are sure that when they become moths, they will be even more beautiful and colourful than they are now.
Distracted by some newly found dandelion leaves, the little woolly bear caterpillar tries to cheer herself up. After all, there is not much you can do to change the way you look, but you can be master of your own thoughts!
Snug in their cocoons, the caterpillars begin their transformation. Some weeks go by, and the moths begin to hatch one by one. The teasing caterpillars have emerged quite plain, but the woolly bear caterpillar is dazzling with her blue spots, stripy body and tiger patterned wings. It’s a vindicating moment and the other moths sing their praises of her!
Julia Donaldson uses wonderful rhythm and rhyme in this story, making it a joy to read. The illustrations are radiant and colourful, complementing the text and enhancing the narrative. There is even a small non-fiction booklet attached to the inside back cover by Michael Blencowe, All About Caterpillars and Moths, which has more information about moths and caterpillars, their body parts and habitats.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 3-6 years and below are more suggestions for picture books which feature the amazing caterpillar and glorious butterflies and moths:
Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, US, 2021
There are many roads to take in life, many people who will give you advice, and many others who will tell what to think and how to act. One of the wonderful benefits of reading is that you can learn about what other people do in difficult situations, how they make decisions and figure out a way forward.
Nasreddine is at the centre of this folk tale from the Middle East, which helps us understand what to do when faced with criticism, ridicule, and advice from others about how to conduct ourselves in life. It is a tender story about a father teaching his son this lesson, and it happens on the way to the market…and isn’t that where we learn most of our lessons? We leave our front door and head out into the world, and if we are lucky, we have someone beside us, to help us think and make wise decisions.
We encounter Nesreddine enjoying a moment of peace sitting on a carpet in the shade of the palm tree drinking camel’s milk with cinnamon in it. His father asks him to get their donkey ready for a trip to the market. They load up the donkey with baskets of dates and off they go. Mustafa sits atop the donkey too and Nasreddine walks happily behind with his slippers in his hand, so they don’t get muddy.
All is well until a passing vizier shouts out that only a lazy man would sit on top of the donkey and let his son walk behind him in the mud.
Nesreddine is ashamed by the comments, so the next time he and his father go to market, Nesreddine makes sure to be the one on the donkey with his father walking behind. Alas, some women see them and comment that young people do not show their elders any respect and that fathers have no authority over their sons.
You can see the pattern! No matter how they ride to market, someone always has something critical to say, and they do not always say it kindly. Mustafa allows his son the time to listen and make changes to the way they ride to market, but in the end, common sense prevails. Young Nesreddine must learn the difference between good advice and bad, listen to his own heart and learn from his mistakes.
For most of us, these lessons take a lifetime, and can sometimes they can be learnt more easily when told as a story. I can highly recommend this picture book for children 6-8 years old and below are more suggestions for picture books that use fables, and traditional and modern stories to teach valuable life lessons:
Nancy Rose has created a charming story about Oakley the Squirrel searching for Z in this very cute alphabet adventure. Nancy is a retired high school guidance counsellor and lives in Nova Scotia, Cananda. She makes her own props and sets using recycled and natural materials, as well as self-hardening clay, icy pole sticks and whatever she can find in her craft supply cupboards and in nature.
Luring wild squirrels onto her sets with peanuts, Nancy captures them in many different poses and creates her stories around their antics. Sometimes there is competition for the peanuts from blue jays, chickadees, and chipmunks in her backyard, but the squirrels are her favourite posers.
In this story, little Oakley is searching for the letter Z and we begin the hunt with Oakley admiring his acorns, and going on to look beneath his bed, claw through the closet, dig through the drawers and examine the easel.
There are wonderful props to enhance the search: handmade wooden tables and chairs, a hand sewn yellow mackintosh and matching hat, as well as a washing machine and ironing board. Tiny quilts, a swing set, a collection of musical instruments and a grand fireplace with mantel all provide gorgeous and interesting settings for the squirrels to explore.
The search is all so tiring for a little squirrel and on the final page we see Oakley having a well-earned sleep, his beautiful bushy tail resting on his back, his eyes closed and a series of colourful Z’s issuing from his nose…too cute!
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 2-4 years and below are more suggestions for picture books which feature squirrels and other publications from Nancy Rose.
(If you would like to read more about the author, I recommend looking up BookPage on the internet, Nancy Rose was interviewed by Hilli Levin on Nov 10, 2014 – there are some great photos and personal anecdotes included in the article.)
Published by Scallywag Press Ltd, Great Britain, 2021
Have you ever wondered how Santa became the jolly Santa Claus who climbs down chimneys and leaves presents in stockings at the end of our beds at Christmas time? Have you ever considered whether he had siblings or parents? Have you spent any time thinking about whether Santa enjoys his job, and just how did he get those elves and reindeer to help with Christmas gift deliveries?
No? That’s okay, Jon Agee has provided all the answers in this wonderfully creative and imaginative picture book about Santa.
We meet Santa as a young boy sitting at the family table in the North Pole, surrounded by his family, mum and dad and six siblings. He’s the only one in a red onesie, so there is every chance that you will recognise him!
All is not well; it seems that everybody except Santa finds life in the North Pole hard work, and they would all like to leave and live somewhere warmer…like Florida. On the eve of their leave taking, a blizzard traps everyone in the house under a huge snowdrift. What can they do?
Fortunately, little Santa has mastered the skill of shimmying up and down chimneys, so he volunteers to set out and find food, snowshoes, and help.
On the way, Santa makes some new friends (you can guess who they might be) and rescues his family. The new friends make a big difference to life in the North Pole, and we are left with one satisfying version as to how the legend of Santa Claus may have come to pass!
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 3-6 years and below are more suggestions for picture books about Santa and Christmas:
This is a creative picture book that explores the idea of being inside and being outside. You would think that this is a straightforward concept, but the illustrations are thought provoking, making the reader reassess their perspective and really look at the images to make sense of what they are seeing.
The book itself is oversized and wordless. Each double page spread has an image on the left that illustrates an interior, the opposing page places that interior image in its wider outside context.
My favourite double page spread shows a four-poster bed, with pillows scattered on the floor, and torn curtains. Some of the torn curtains have been made into a rope that is dangling outside a narrow window. All this is illustrated on the left-hand page. On the right-hand page, we see a castle nestled on a hilltop, pennants waving in the breeze, surrounded by mountains and a river. At first, you wonder how the images are connected but, looking closer, there is the curtain-rope dangling out of a high window in the castle, unnoticed by a guard. In the meandering yellow river below, a small maiden with long flowing golden hair is wading through the water to reach the bank on the other side. Yes, it’s a snapshot of Rapunzel making her escape and without a prince to save her!
There are many other cleverly illustrated images: the chaos of a cabin inside a yacht that is navigating rough ocean waves; a figure in a tent warming his hands by a fire inside the belly of a whale; a driver in a cab at the head of a long road-train winding its way through a barren landscape; the vibrating heart of a person who is bungee-jumping off a very tall bridge. In the final image, there is an old man looking out of the window at the night sky from inside his house. On the page opposite, you can see that only one house in a row of many houses has a light shining in the window. It must be his house and his light we are seeing, a silent viewer of the vast inky sky while everyone else sleeps.
Without written words to navigate the images, there is a lot to talk about! Not only is the reader encouraged to pay attention to the details in the illustrations, but they are also required to understand the connection between the images. This introduces the concepts of perspective and opposites, as well as narrative comprehension, so important for reading as children progress to chapter books and longer stories.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years and below are more suggestions for picture books which focus on the theme of opposites:
“Young children notice a lot – including skin color, race, and even injustice and racism. It can be hard to find the right words to answer their questions or start a conversation about race. But when we talk about it, children often come to their own conclusions, which can include bias and stereotypes because of the world we live in. Simple conversations can help them make sense of their world and even recognise and speak up about injustice. This book is a good place to start or continue the conversation. It’s okay to take a break, leave something out for now, or weave in stories of your own.”
By Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli
The above quote is from the first page of this wonderful book which explores the idea of racism and how we can begin to talk about it with young people.
Despite the complexity of the topic, the text is simple, clear, and concise and begins with the most basic of questions: what colour is your skin?
It encourages the reader to look about themselves and recognise differences in skin colour amongst family, friends, and neighbours. It reinforces the beauty of our skin and its importance for our bodies. It explains why some people have darker or lighter skin because of varying levels of melanin. It provides a vocabulary to use when talking about people of colour, and lists words used in the wider world to describe groups of people who are not white.
But best of all, it explains what the colour of someone’s skin can’t tell you about a person. It can’t tell you how a person feels, what they are thinking, what they know and like. From here, it’s a small step to reflecting upon how people of colour have been unfairly treated in history, how racism has been pervasive in societies and how it has gone on, unnoticed and unchecked.
In our personal lives, racism can be expressed in the ways we exclude people based on the way they look or talk, it can be in the ways we address people or label them, and whether we do this on purpose or by mistake.
So, what can we do? We can be more aware in our relationships, we can march in protest, we can speak up, we can teach, help, learn, and listen. We can start the conversation with young people, educate them and ourselves, and actively participate in anti-racist efforts.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years and adults too, and below are more suggestions for picture books which look at the issue of racism and being different in creative ways:
Cute and cuddly. Not the first words that come to mind when I think of sharks. There are all those teeth for a start. Then, there is its triangular dorsal fin skimming through the water and the ominous intent with which it seems to seek its prey – the shark demands respect and terror in equal parts.
The cover of this picture book doesn’t shy away from the image of what a shark is, even though most of us have probably never encountered one, unless of course we have been safe behind glass.
The end papers are particularly haunting. As you open the book, there is a shark swimming directly towards the reader, silently navigating the sun- kissed ocean, poised, and focussed, spiderwebs of sunlight shimmering along its body. When you finish reading the book, the shark is swimming away, almost as if it has been released in the knowledge that the reader knows more about what it is. To be known is to be loved, after all.
And in between the end papers, there is much to learn about the shark. Where it lives, how big it can grow, how many years it can live, how it finds food, what it most likes to eat, how pups are birthed, and whether it is a solitary creature or not.
The main text is beautifully poetic and descriptive, but on each page, there is also a short paragraph using smaller text with more information. Together, these words, coupled with the evocative illustrations, give the reader a complete picture of the shark, its lifestyle and habitat.
Claire Saxby lives in Melbourne, Australia, and has written other picture books which focus on Australian animals: Big Red Kangaroo and Emu (with Graham Byrne as illustrator), Koala (with Julie Vivas as illustrator) and Dingo (with Tanny Harricks as illustrator). They provide a great introduction to these animals and their habitats, perfect for enquiring minds!
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-6 years and below are more picture books which feature sharks, a mixture of fact, fiction and fun:
I have a dear friend who lives in Warrnambool, a regional city on the south-west coast of Victoria in Australia, and who works for a major dairy manufacturer. My friend is one of many hundreds who rely on this industry to provide work and income security for their families. Indeed, the milk I buy comes all the way from Warrnambool to Melbourne, and the cheese and yoghurt too. How it arrives in our local supermarket is not something I think about, but I should. Our resources are precious, our food is important, and we should respect the effort that farmers and growers make to provide for our communities.
This picture book is about Holly the black and white Holstein cow, born and bred in far north Queensland in the care of Farmer Col and his wife. Farmer Col is actually Colin Daley, he runs “Ourway Holsteins” just outside Millaa Millaa in Queensland. Nearby is Mt. Bartle Frere and these places form the backdrop to the story.
If you listen to the audio version, Russell and members of his family provide the voices of all the characters in the book. It’s written in rhyming prose, making it easy to remember while we simultaneously learn about the twice daily milking routine of the cows, the food they eat and where they graze.
One day, Holly is chosen by Farmer Col to go to the local farm show. While she is there, Holly discovers all the varied products that are made using her milk. On display in the dairy cabinets are milk, yoghurt, butter, and cheese. Holly is delighted to see her face on all the items and is proud to be the ambassador for Hollyvale dairy products.
The following day at the show, the judges deem Holly to be the best Holstein cow in the competition. Holly comes home from her adventures with a spring in her step, a medal around her neck and a garland atop her head. She has discovered her worth, her value and her contribution to the wider community.
This picture book is a valuable educational resource for young children, helping them to understand the connection between the food we purchase at supermarkets and markets, and the production of it on farms and agricultural estates.
Most importantly, any profits made from the sale of this picture book will be donated to the NSW Mid Coast Dairy Advancement Group to support the 150 dairy farmers whose livelihoods were devastated by the floods in March 2021.
You can view this picture book on YouTube.
You can also purchase this picture book in a PDF format or as a book, just type in the title online and follow the prompts.
I can recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years and below are more suggestions for picture books which explore the concept of how food is grown and produced:
This is a lovely story about waiting, dreaming, hoping and a special seal, of course!
Young Noah is with his Nana at the edge of the wild blue sea. He is waiting for the seals to come closer to the shore. Nana is busy mending the boat and she is not sure the seals will visit this part of the coast. That doesn’t stop Noah from hoping.
While waiting for his Nana, little Noah starts to dig in the golden sand, and gradually the sandy mound begins to take the shape of a beautiful seal. With a pat here and a stroke there, with shells for its dappled back, spiky sea grass for its whiskers and glossy pebbles for its eyes, the seal stretches out to face the ocean with a contented smile upon its face.
A sudden storm blows in across the ocean, Nana and Noah must take shelter in the boat and leave the golden sandy seal to face the wind and rain alone. But when the storm blows over, the seal is gone. Noah hopes it has swum to safety in the waves.
Nana is not so sure and kindly promises a ride in the boat another time to look for frolicking seals but, just as they turn to leave, Noah spots a familiar shape on a rock close to shore. What could it be?
This story is a wonderful reminder of long, hot summer days, spending time with a beloved grandparent, dreaming of wild creatures in the watery depths of the sea, imagining them come to life, and hoping for something extraordinary to happen on ordinary days. We have made and decorated mermaids on the beach, how I wish they could have come to life on the sandy seashore. We are never too old to dream!
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 3-6 years and below are more suggestions for picture books which feature seals: