Matt James: The Funeral

Illustrated by the author

Published by Affirm Press, South Melbourne, Victoria, 2019

We have all been to funerals. Perhaps you remember going to a funeral when you were young. I have been too many times, it hurts to say goodbye to someone you once loved and who once lived their experienced-filled life. Funerals can be sad occasions, but every death makes you think more about life. And depending on your age, you can experience that loss in different ways, ask different questions, and accept or not accept what has happened.

It is unusual for a picture book to delve into the experience of going to a funeral service, but I think this one beautifully and tenderly captures the sorrow and joy of the occasion.

Norma, a young girl, is happy to have the day off from school and she knows she will meet up with her younger favourite cousin Ray at the church. Did you know that the word FUNERAL has FUN in it? The juxtaposition of the sorrow and sadness of the adults in the illustrations is very cleverly balanced by the joy of being young. My favourite spread is when Norma, sitting in the church pew during the long service, sticks her head in her mother’s handbag, and inhales the scents of her mother. When the organ plays its “swirling song”, rainbows come out of the pipes. Triangle sandwiches are eagerly eaten after the service and finally the children can be let out of church and into the gardens and graveyard beyond. Norma cartwheels over the green, green grass and with Ray they look for frogs and fish in the small pond. On the journey home, Norma reflects that Uncle Frank would have liked his funeral. I felt the same way when my father and father-in-law passed away. If only they could have been present with us and seen all those people gathered in the church, how amazed they would have been and how much they would have enjoyed the occasion.

Matt James has deftly portrayed a singular event from two perspectives. We see the adults doing their grown-up duties and we see the young ones doing their best to be part of something that they sort of do and don’t understand. What the young ones teach us however is this: we have life, we are alive, live it to the fullest today.

I can highly recommend this book for children 5-10 years. The illustrations are complex, but not overwhelming, the colours are vibrant but not sombre, and they enhance the text with pathos and insight. Painted with acrylic, Matt James has also used twine, cardboard, masking tape and scroll-sawn masonite to create his amazing artwork.

Here are more suggestions for further reading on the topic of grief and loss:

Old Pig by Margaret Wild
Illustrated by Ron Brooks
Goodbye Mousie by
Robie H. Harris
Illustrated by
Jan Ormerod
Goodbye Mog
by Judith Kerr
Her Mother’s Face
by Roddy Doyle
Illustrated by
Freya Blackwood
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book
by Michael Rosen
Illustrated by
Quentin Blake

Lifetimes by
Bryan Mellonie
Illustrated by
Robert Ingpen
Sammy in the Sky
by Barbara Walsh
Illustrated by
Jamie Wyeth

Lorna Scobie: Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!

Illustrated by the author

Published by Scholastic Children’s Books, 2020

We all make assumptions. About many things. It could be about a person or a place or even what a particular food might taste like because of its colour. We might make assumptions about someone’s behaviour or even an animal’s behaviour. We could assume that most cats like to chase mice, most dogs like to chase cats, and probably most foxes like to eat chickens and sometimes even rabbits. Sometimes we don’t even know what our assumptions are until they are challenged.

In this picture book we meet a young rabbit who assumes that he is the only one in the litter and he loves it that way. There is no need to share anything. He can have his own flower patch, his own stack of juicy carrots, his own private bedroom. Until one day he is joined by one sibling, and another and another and even another, and more again. Lost are all the privileges of being the only one.

Enter the fox next door who has declared his love of having rabbits for company.

And what do we assume? I think we assume the worst.

So, when the young rabbit asks the fox very kindly to take care of all those extra rabbits, we all take in a sharp breath. We think we know what is going to happen.

Yes, the young rabbit gets back his own flower patch, his own stack of juicy carrots and his own cosy bedroom, but the assumption he made about how he would feel when that happened was not what he thought. He misses his siblings and wants to be where they have gone.

So, into the fox’s den the young rabbit happily hops….and what do you assume will happen once he is inside?

Well, I can’t tell you…you will just have to read it yourself!

But remember, never assume because you may be wrong, but you could be right!

I can highly recommend this book for children 4-8 years old,  the illustrations cleverly aid the storyline and build tension to the very last page.

If you would like to read more books about foxes and rabbits, not necessarily in the same story and the list is not exhaustive (never assume!), here are some of my favourites:

I Want a Bunny! by
Tony Ross
The ABC Bunny by
Wanda Gag
Bunny Cakes by
Rosemary Wells
Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale
by Mo Willems
A Mouse Called Julian by
Joe Todd-Stanton
One Fox: A Counting Book Thriller
by Kate Read
Rosie’s Walk by
Pat Hutchins
The Very Sleepy Bear
by Nick Bland

Philip Bunting: The Wonderful Wisdom of Ants

Illustrated by the author

Published by Omnibus Books/Scholastic Australia Pty Ltd, 2020

Ants are everywhere. I see them at home, in my letterbox, under pot plants, gathering around sand mounds in the cracks of concrete. I notice that they are more active just before rain. I am annoyed when they come inside my pantry and find the honey jar. But apart from that, I have not given the humble ant much thought. That is, until now. And I have Philip Bunting to thank for it. Did you know that ants can teach us about ourselves, our communities and our planet?

According to Philip Bunting, ants love family, recycling, micronaps and helping other ants, they communicate using pheromones, the smelly alphabet of the ant world, and they know what their role is when they are born. Their “superpower” is  to live and work cooperatively and harmoniously with every other ant in the colony. While most of us hope to leave this world behind in better shape than when we arrived, Philip Bunting assures us that the humble ant can help us figure out how to do that. When you think about it, ant colonies are masterpieces of engineering, community and collaboration….and it’s all happening in our backyards!

The illustrations in this picture book are uncomplicated, use a limited colour palette and are sprinkled with humor. Philip lives in Queensland, although he is originally from the English Lake District and sometimes teams up with his wife Laura to produce picture books.

I highly recommend it for children 4-8 years old. Here are more of my favourite picture books by Philip Bunting:

Mopoke by Philip Bunting
Koalas Eat Gum Leaves
by Philip Bunting
Kookaburras Love to Laugh
by Philip Bunting
How Did I Get Here?
by Philip Bunting
Another Book About Bears by
Laura and Philip Bunting

Polly Dunbar: Red Red Red

Illustrated by the author

Published by Walker Books 2019

If you have ever witnessed, endured and tried to placate a young person having a meltdown, or tantrum, then you know that it can be a frightening, despairing and vulnerable experience. That feeling of seeing red, being surrounded by circles of red, and being in the middle of a vortex of red hot anger can be overwhelming. The front cover of Dunbar’s picture book beautifully and honestly illustrates that feeling. There are red crayon swirls completely encircling an unhappy shouting and yelling child who maybe 2 or 3 years old. How did the child get to this point?

Well, it started with one thing going wrong, the biscuit jar was out of reach. There was a fall, and a bump on the head, twisted pants and socks that don’t stay up…little things that add up and add up, until suddenly it seems like nothing is going right. We have all had days like that.

Fortunately, there is a mum in this story who steps in and confronts those red hot feelings with soothing words of wisdom. Just count, mum says. And breath, deeply, until those confusing and hot feelings subside. It’s mindfulness for the young and even for those not so young. We should all do a little more deep breathing and sighing in our day. Focus on the air going in and out, nurturing and sustaining our lives every moment of every day.

I can highly recommend this book for children 2-8 years, and here are some of my recommendations for other picture books that explore emotions:

The Colour of Happy
by Laura Baker
Breathing Makes it Better
by Christopher Willard and
Wendy O’Leary
In My Heart: A Book of Feelings
by Jo Witek
When Sadness Comes to Call
by Eva Eland
How Do You Feel?
by Anthony Browne
The Rabbit Listened by
Cori Doerrfeld

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Grumpy Pants by Claire Messer

Jorey Hurley: Beehive

Illustrated by the author

See the source image

Published by A Paula Wiseman Book/Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020

Using only 15 words, Jorey Hurley explores the complex world of bees and the process they go through to make beehives and honey. Those precise words accompany uncomplicated and informative art to help us understand their meaning. I love books that use sparse text. It gives the reader the opportunity to use their own words and ask questions about what they can see on the page, how it links to the previous page and where the story might be going next.  A conversation can begin and very soon, a young reader or listener can develop comprehension skills, narrative skills and imaginative empathy, without even being conscious of it. A story with few words can also be used for children of different ages. Younger children can appreciate it for its simplicity, brevity and colourful imagery.  Older children can ask questions and find more detailed answers at the end of the story in the author’s note, which adds depth of knowledge to the single word chosen for each double page spread. The limited colour palette contributes to the feeling of calmness too, there is no rushing here, just time to absorb the creativity and importance of bees in our gardens, in the food we eat and in our environment.

Jorey Hurley is a talented artist who sells her own prints, paintings and stationery. I can highly recommend this picture book for children aged between 2-8 years. Here are more of my favorites:

Nest by Jorey Hurley
Hop by Jorey Hurley
Ribbit by Jorey Hurley
Fetch by Jorey Hurley

Sophie Blackall: Hello Lighthouse

Illustrated by the author

Published by Orchard Books, 2019

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to live and work in a lighthouse?

If you have, then this is the book for you. The illustrations are exquisitely detailed, you can see the minutiae of everyday life inside a light house over the seasons of the year. Sprinkled in between the pages are gems of information, like letters really being sent in bottles and visitors being winched from a swaying tender in a bosun’s chair to the lighthouse itself, all the while over rough and turbulent seas. Many of the drawings are illustrated from different perspectives: some from above, some in fog, some in roped circles and one in a pull out spread that captures the isolation of the lighthouse in glorious sunset colors. At the end of the story, the author tells us more about lighthouses, their function in days gone by, the faithful and constant maintenance of the lightkeepers, the hardships and loneliness that had to be endured. And how that all changed with the introduction of electric lights and automated machinery around the turn of the century.

So, why not grab your favourite person, head out to the coast and find a lighthouse to explore! While you are there, think about those brave men and women who lived and worked inside them, devoting their lives to be beacons of safety for sailors all around the world.

This book was the winner of the Caldecott Medal in 2019 and I would highly recommend it for children aged between 5-10 years old.

If you like this book, here is another favorite of mine by Sophie Blackall, telling the story of the inspirational beginnings of that famous bear, Winnie the Pooh.

Finding Winnie by
Lindsay Mattick
Illustrated by
Sophie Blackall

Anna Dewdney and Reed Duncan: Llama Llama Mess, Mess, Mess

Illustrated by J T Morrow

See the source image

Published by Viking, 2019

It’s cleaning day and Llama Llama just wants to play! It’s a thorny problem, tackled by parents everywhere with growing children. Just how do you motivate them to help with the chores? So, Mama Llama asks Llama Llama to imagine what it would be like if cleaning was never done. It’s a clever idea and humorously illustrated with Mama Llama tossing rags on to the floor, throwing clean clothes up in the air, dancing around the kitchen on roller skates and leaving dirty dishes all over the sink and benches, even throwing empty snack bags over her shoulder onto the couch. The house is one big mess. The resulting chaos makes Llama Llama aware of the consequences of being untidy and he begins to understand the importance of why we clean up after ourselves.

The illustrations reflect the devil-may-care attitude of Mama and the carefree abandon of not being responsible for anything. I must admit, I could feel Mama Llama’s joy as she sat in the mess of her own making!

As with all Llama Llama books, the rhyming words almost make you sing the story. It’s a great book to read aloud with your little one and wonder together at the what-ifs of life. We all have choices: to do good or not. Children and adults always need to think about that!

There are many books in Llama Llama series, here are three of my favorites,  suitable for children aged 3-5 years old:

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Llama Llama Red Pajama
See the source image
Llama Llama Mad at Mama
See the source image
Llama Llama Holiday Drama

Mike Dumbleton: Anisa’s Alphabet

Illustrated by Hannah Sommerville

Published by Midnight Sun Publishing Pty Ltd, 2020

With few words, many pictures and the alphabet, Mike Dumbleton has taken us on the journey of young Anisa Alidurahn, a refugee fleeing from her homeland with her family. Each letter frames the next step, the next hope and the next feeling as we travel with Anisa, helping us to understand what it might be like to leave all that we love behind. From happy home, to a tent city, to a boat that is overcrowded and sinking, to detention, we journey with Anisa and enter her uncertain world.

The language is simple, evocative and hopeful despite the helplessness of the many challenges that face Anisa and her family. As such, it is an excellent resource to introduce this sensitive and sometimes disturbing topic to younger readers.

If you like this book, look out for these titles by the same author:

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Meet…Douglas Mawson
Illustrated by Snip Green
See the source image
Passing On
Illustrated by
Terry Denton
See the source image
Downsized
Illustrated by Tom Jellett

If you would like to read more picture books about refugees, here are some of my favorite titles:

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What is a Refugee?
by Elise Gravel
See the source image
Whoever You Are by
Mem Fox
Illustrated by Leslie Staub
See the source image
My Two Blankets by
Irena Kobald
Illustrated by
Freya Blackwood
See the source image
The Little Refugee by
Anh Do
and Suzanne Do
Illustrated by
Bruce Whatley

Julie Paschkis: Where Lily Isn’t

Illustrated by Margaret Chodos-Irvine

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2020

This is a beautifully tender book that explores how it feels to lose a beloved pet.

David Whyte, poet and philosopher, has spoken about the empty space that a loved one can leave behind upon their death and he referred to it as “the shape of your own absence”. It’s a haunting thought, that sense that a physical being can leave behind a hollowness that you can almost feel. Paschkis has elegantly described how this absence feels for a young girl who has lost her dog Lily, taking us to all the places that Lily isn’t. Lily is not under the table waiting for scraps, not barking at the door when the mail arrives, not pushing and pulling on the lead, not rolling over waiting for her belly to be rubbed. As the young girl journeys through her day without her pet being a part of it, the observations become sadder and more poignant.

As I neared the end of the book on my first reading, I expected to see the young girl embrace a new puppy, something to fill the absence. Instead, we see her at the table drawing her memories and recognising that the love she had for Lily will forever remain in her heart. And I think that ending is more real, because we can’t always replace what is lost and sometimes we just have to hold on to the memories and keep them in our heart.

I can highly recommend this book for children 2-8 years old and here are other titles that explore the themes of loss, grief and death:

The Heart and the Bottle
by Oliver Jeffers
The Rabbit Listened
by Cori Doerrfeld
The Scar by
Charlotte Moundlic
Illustrated by Olivier Tallec

Laura Knowles: It Starts with a Seed

Illustrated by Jennie Webber

See the source image

Published by Words and Pictures, US, 2017

There are many books on the market that explore the theme of plant growth from seed to tree, but I have chosen this book because of its simple yet concise language and the expressive drawings that accompany the text. Each page explores the development of one seed with gentle rhyme and observation, helping the reader to understand how one tree can become home and habitat to many creatures, big and small. As well, the author explores the idea that a tree, grown from a seed, can throw its own seeds and that they can begin life all over again, an everlasting circle of life. The tree described in this picture book is a sycamore tree and at the end of the book, its life cycle is illustrated, with annotated facts, on a large pull out page.

Whilst many of us wouldn’t plant a sycamore tree in our backyard (they can grow to over 100 feet), there are many seeds that you can plant for almost instant pleasure. So, grab your little person and head off to the nursery, pick up a packet of sunflower seeds for a splash of colour or spinach seedlings for adding to your plate, some potting mix, a few containers, a watering can, some liquid plant food and watch the amazing transformation…and don’t forget to keep watering!

This book would be suitable for children 2-8 years old and if you would like to read more about seeds, here are some of my favorites:

A Seed is Sleepy
by Dianna Aston,
illustrated by Sylvia Long
See the source image
Seeds Move! by
Robin Page
See the source image
The Tiny Seed by
Eric Carle