Published by Viking, Penguin Young Readers Group, 2017
A dear friend introduced me to Philomena and her sisters recently, what a cute little trio of guinea pigs! I have shared this story with young readers and much older ones and everyone, without exception, has finished the book with a smile.
My favourite is Nora Jane. She is not the oldest, that’s Philomena. She is not the largest, that’s Audrey. Nora Jane is completely herself, prepared to follow her sisters’ adventures in acquiring glasses, bags and dresses whether she needs all this stuff or not. But enough is enough. Does she really need a bag when her arms are too short to carry one, or glasses when she can see perfectly well without them?
Nora Jane is even prepared to squeeze herself into a dress just like her trendy sisters, but she soon discovers that the dress makes her armpits itch!
There is nothing like a sisterly conversation, sharing the truth, and talking about the things that are really bothering you, to get the problem sorted.
And just when you think the problems are sorted, your sister can still surprise you!
The final page is very cleverly staged and convinces me that Nora Jane is one sassy, unique and endearing character.
Chuck Kennedy has done a remarkable job getting these real-life guinea pigs to pose for photo shoots. It was also comforting to read that:
“No stunt doubles were used in the making of this book. Each guinea pig performed her own stunts, including hefty purse lifting, snug dress wearing, and even extensive kale eating.”
I can highly recommend this book for children 2-8 years and up to 88 years, my mother was giggling all the way through her first read. Below are more suggestions for further reading about the joys and tribulations of having a sister:
Daffodils are the great heralders of spring. Like soft, yellow, downy chickens they speak of new life and hope. How something so colourful and beautiful can grow from an unassuming flaky brown bulb is one of the wonderful mysteries of life.
When Mr Yilmaz from next door gives young Tom his very first daffodil bulb, Tom thinks it is an onion. From a certain point of view, he could be quite right.
With the daffodil in the pot, every stage of its growth can be witnessed. For a long time, nothing happens. Tom is uncertain that anything will happen. With water and a bit of sunshine, a small green shoot eventually appears. To Tom, it resembles a green beak. As it grows, it starts to look more like a hand with five fingers waving in the breeze. After a few more weeks, it appears like a yellow streetlight. After months of waiting, a glorious golden yellow trumpet finally emerges.
There are so many lessons to take away from this simple story.
There is the constant friendship of Mr Yilmaz next door. He gives the gift of patience and steadfastness to young Tom when he hands over the daffodil. Patience for waiting; it takes time to grow something. Steadfastness in friendship; being there in times of doubt and growth.
There is the idea that what you and I see when we look at same thing together will not always be the same. Mr Yilmaz saw a bulb, young Tom saw an onion. Sometimes it is a gift to share a tried and true experience with someone who has never had it. Your perspective can be altered and enriched by someone else’s point of view.
There is the idea of nurturing. Plants grow with earth, water, light and time. People grow with love, encouragement and friendship. But we also need the earth, water, light and time. These are wonderful truths for young readers to contemplate.
I highly recommend this picture book for children 3-8 years.
For further reading I have chosen titles that explore the concept of perception, seeing a part of something and seeing the whole of something can make a world of difference!
Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, London, 2011
David Attenborough recently celebrated his 94th birthday and for one whose life has been all about the conservation, protection and exploration of the natural world and its biodiversity, it would seem remiss not to quote him saying something both wise and wonderful when reviewing a picture book that considers these themes:
“The truth is: the natural world is changing. And we are totally dependant on that world. It provides our food, water and air. It is the most precious thing we have and we need to defend it.”
Alex Beard has also travelled extensively to some of the most remote places on earth, painting and reflecting on the interconnections between environments, wildlife and people. Crocodile Tears is the third book in the Tales from the Watering Hole series which also includes The Jungle Grapevine and Monkey See Monkey Draw. Proceeds from the sale of Crocodile Tears go to the Shompole Community Trust, which is a land and animal reserve in Kenya overseen by the Maasai people.
The setting for this story is Africa, near the Mburu River. Rhino and Tickbird are coming to the river to drink and want to know why crocodile is crying, but they are afraid to approach a mouth full of teeth, so who can they ask? Off they go to explore the African plains looking for animals that might know the answer.
What I most admire about the way the story unfolds is that each creature who is asked and does not know the answer, suggests another creature by describing something remarkable and unique about them. The Golden Eagle recommends asking the Elephant whose trumpeting can be heard for miles; the Elephant suggests asking the tree frogs whose song is so beautiful; the tree frog proposes asking the butterfly whose wing patterns are so dazzling. And there are many more encounters just like this.
The animals however are proving difficult to find, and that message is often repeated. Could it be that is why the crocodile is crying? Perhaps it is because all the animals are disappearing.
Finally, after a humorous encounter with an ostrich, Rhino and Tickbird find their courage and ask Crocodile why he is crying. The answer is very clever.
“I’m crying because it is hot in the sun and the tears keep my eyes moist and healthy. It’s one of the things crocodiles do. But, since you asked Black Rhino, it could be because I am going to miss you.”
Well, if you are like me, I thought the message was about extinction.
But no, the crocodile actually eats Rhino!
Not to worry, crocodile spits Rhino out again!
But…the message is about extinction. Some of the animals mentioned in the picture book are critically endangered. Their habitats are under threat, they are at risk of poaching and hunting, and sometimes cannot find enough food.
A glossary at the end of the book gives some insight into these problems and there is a small paragraph with an accompanying photo giving the reader information about habitat, population numbers and conservation efforts.
I can highly recommend this book for children 4-8 years, it can help young readers begin to understand the complex nature of conservation and how people can play a vital role in the protection of animal species. Here are more suggestions for further reading:
Published by Berbay Publishing, Kew East, Vic, 3102
“The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud—it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony.” ―Mem Fox, Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever
John Canty is a Melbourne based artist, designer and writer, with a flair for adapting nineteenth century artwork into pictures that can be appreciated by young and older readers.
Each underwater creature is hinted at with clues in the text and a partial drawing of its body. This gives you time to think about what it could be, begin a discussion about the clues and then have a guess, turn the page and see if you are right!
As a tool for learning, it’s masterful. For young readers, the first reading gives them information and insight. The second reading tests their memory skills. The third reading begins to cement their knowledge and embed three new facts about each creature into their minds. This information can be used in the future as they learn more about the sea and the animals that live in it, and they have a visual memory to support it. I love the illustration of the whale and that it takes four pages to contain its image, and it doesn’t even quite do that, because it is just so big!
John Canty introduces us to creatures that are familiar, such as a crab, eel, octopus, sea star, sting ray, turtle, whale and more. The illustrations are beautifully crafted on each page, uncomplicated and embellished with watercolour.
I highly recommend this picture book for children 3-6 years and suggest that you look out for these titles by the author:
Sometimes it’s hard to face reality. Especially if your reality is scary, unpleasant, uncomfortable or just too difficult to put into words. Sometimes all you want to do is fly away and leave the problems far behind. Maybe you will come back and face them another day, or maybe not. Sometimes it feels like you should sort the mess on your own but no-one else understands how you feel or how to help you.
Simon James addresses some of these issues in The Boy From Mars.
Young Stanley has to say goodbye to his mum, who is leaving for work and will not be home overnight, and he is feeling a bit lost with this idea. The first thing Stanley does is run out to the garden and climb into a big box that is his spaceship and zoom off to Mars. Fortunately, Stanley comes back, but he is not Stanley anymore. He is a Martian! And this particular Martian does not behave quite like the other boys on Earth.
Martians don’t wash their hands before dinner, they don’t eat vegetables, but they do love ice cream. Martians don’t wash their teeth before bed, but they do keep their helmets on in bed. This particular Martian doesn’t behave so well at school either. Dad is a bit worried about what mum will think when she arrives home. Of course, mum does come home and the first question she asks is whether this little Martian has been good.
What can the Martian do? Jump back in the spaceship, go to Mars and bring back Stanley!
This is a wonderful story that explores what it is like to miss someone. We all have different ways of coping with this feeling. Fortunately for Stanley, his family allowed him the space and time to work it out.
The illustrations are tender and poignant, filled with all the details of life at home, making it very accessible and familiar.
Did you know that Simon James trained as a policeman after leaving school? Fortunately for us, he was asked to leave after penguin drawings were discovered in his notebooks!
I highly recommend this picture book for children 3-6 years, and here are more of my favourite books by Simon James:
In this big, bright and colourful picture book, Little Fish introduces us to all her fishy friends in the deep blue sea. The text is easy to read aloud and encourages young readers to look for colours, shapes, numbers and names. There are fat fish and thin fish, scary and hairy fish, some that curl and whirl, and others that go round and round. The text is rhythmic, repetitive and descriptive on backgrounds of blues, greens and purples. The illustrations of the fish are vibrant and mesmerising. I especially love the ending when Little Fish finds the fish that she loves best, even more than all the rest, it’s Mama Fish of course, kiss, kiss, kiss!
Lucy Cousins is a prolific picture book author and illustrator and is best known for creating Maisy Mouse. These books are a great resource for pre-school children to learn more about the world around them. Maisy goes to more places than I do! You can find her travelling to the museum, the airport, the library, the hospital, the movies and going on a vacation or camping…and that list is not exhaustive. These books introduce young readers to experiences they have not had yet or help them reflect upon experiences they have already had.
In the same way, Hooray for Fish, introduces young children to the natural world and all the wonders in it, without even dipping their toes in the water!
A companion volume to Hooray for Fish! is Hooray for Birds! Similar in size and colourful vibrancy, we are encouraged to imagine ourselves as busy birds and fly, peck, hop, swim, swoop, waddle and even lay an egg as we go about our busy day.
I can highly recommend these titles by Lucy Cousins, especially for children 0-5 years, they provide a solid foundation to learning and help start a discussion with your child about situations and creatures they will encounter in life!
A few days ago I was encouraged by my daughter to listen to an On Being podcast hosted by Krista Tippett. In early July, Krista had interviewed Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, and Resmaa Menakem, trauma specialist, not many weeks after George Floyd had been killed. Whilst I had difficulty grasping some of the concepts discussed, I was left with one kernel of truth: the colour of my skin has given me many more advantages and benefits in my own life than I have hitherto been unaware of and, sadly, have failed to recognise and acknowledge.
At the end of her huband’s presidency, Michelle Obama released her book Becoming, and she also does not shy away from the fact that being a person of colour has had an impact upon everything she has achieved and not achieved in her remarkable and inspirational life.
In the light of this, I came across this very special picture book written by Fay Muir and Sue Lawson and illustrated by Lisa Kennedy. Fay is a Boonwurrung Elder and Lisa Kennedy is a descendant of coastal Trawlwoolway people of north-east Tasmania. Sue grew up on a farm in Western Victoria.
Respect is the theme and it encompasses everything: respect for the stories we share, songs we sing, elders from whom we gain insight, ancestors who inform our history, the earth we inhabit, our family, each other and ourselves. The illustrations complement the text and evoke the colours of Australia, as well as showcasing the unique wonder of Aboriginal art and culture. The idea I take away with me from this picture book is that no matter who you are, where you have come from, whatever colour your skin is, whether you are animal or human, respect is the cornerstone of society and harmonious life.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years old and encourage you to look for more titles by Aboriginal authors and illustrators. I have also included Bruce Pascoe’s Young Dark Emu in the list below and recommend it for children 10 years old and above.
If there were two characters that I would most like to host for tea it would be Bear and Mouse from this series by Bonny Becker.
Bear is fastidious, overbearing, grumpy and crotchety about almost everything.
Mouse is eternally optimistic, bright-eyed, cheeky and persistent about being Bear’s best friend.
Together they are an odd couple, but very endearing.
In A Birthday for Bear, we learn that it is Bear’s birthday and that he is not at all interested in celebrating it. Mouse has other plans however and we see him try every trick in the book to encourage Bear to change his mind. Mouse writes his own invitation to the party, but that doesn’t work. He disguises himself as a delivery man with three red party balloons and gets shooed off the porch. He dresses up as postman and delivers a birthday card, but Bear will not be moved. Mouse even drops down the chimney as Santa with a present but Bear only notices all the ash making a mess over the hearth. It seems like the final straw. But is it?
Kady MacDonald Denton does a masterful job illustrating Bear and Mouse. On any given page, Bear is illustrated in various poses with a range of emotions. He can be outraged, frustrated, huffy, curious, surprised, contrite, sneaky and delighted. Mouse is a tiny, energetic, indefatigable and ever-present creature that constantly picks and pulls at Bear’s privacy and never seems to give up despite the many setbacks he endures. Fortunately, there is always a happy ending and whilst Bear may sometimes forget that he has a wonderful friend, Mouse never tires of making sure Bear knows it.
There are many books in this series by Bonny Becker and whilst they do not need to be read in order, I highly recommend that you read all of them! They would be most suitable for children aged 4-8 years:
It’s not often that I come across a picture book that addresses so many teachable values in life. SumoKitty oozes wisdom about humility, resilience, resourcefulness, satisfaction, complacency, opportunism and the value of hard work. Not forgetting the importance of enjoying what you eat!
There are a number of wise sayings in the story, but my favourite one is at the beginning: “’Fall down seven times; get up eight’. It means never give up.”
No matter what your age, we can all benefit from hearing that once in our lives. Because who of us has not come to a crossroad, a decision that rests on staying or leaving, when either path seems right, and the only decision we have to make is choosing which way to go forward?
We meet SumoKitty as a stray, who wanders into the heya (training centre) of a group of sumo wrestlers. Enticed by the wonderful smells of fish, noodles and plates of chicken, SumoKitty takes up residence and enjoys feasting on the culinary delights that are served up daily. One day, however, he is caught by the Okamisan (manager of the heya). To eat and earn his keep, SumoKitty must now work and rid the centre of all the mice which Kuma the sumo wrestler is so fearful of.
SumoKitty does the job well and gets so fat and lazy, that the mice who were chased away, start to come back. Quick as a flash, SumoKitty is tossed out of the heya, and the good fortune which was so abundant, is lost once again.
Here is the lesson for SumoKitty: stay lost and become a stray for the second time or take the opportunity to learn from past mistakes and move toward his heart’s desire. With the help of his friend Kuma, who has his own fears to face, SumoKitty finds a way forward. It takes hard work, perseverance and dedication, but combined with a little ingenuity and courage, SumoKitty and Kuma stand tall again.
I can highly recommend this book for children 5-10 years, the illustrations cleverly enhance the text, SumoKitty is sooo cute, and there is a photo at the end of the story of Sox, the original SumoKitty!
Here are my recommendations for more stories about resilience and how the vicissitudes of life have been navigated by others.
I have recommended Ella Holcombe’s picture book about her experience in the Black Saturday fires of 2009, I would advise adults to read it before sharing Ella’s memories of this event with young readers.
“I seemed to vow to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth, the end of the axis upon which this great round ball turns.” (Ernest Shackleton)
It’s quite sobering to think that we live on a great ball in the sky, but equally remarkable that people have ventured to its far-flung axes. Shackleton was in the deep cold south searching for the pole more than one hundred years ago and knighted for his exploratory adventures on his return home. Whilst I will most likely remain unknighted in my lifetime, there are other ways to travel and learn about our freezing polar regions and feel honour-bound in the process.
Moira Court has authored and illustrated a simple yet evocative counting journey through the icy cold world of Antarctica. Using a mixture of printmaking techniques and collage we are introduced to ten creatures who thrive and endure in the freezing south. The language used is rich in imagery and I particularly like the double adjectives in every sentence. These adjectives rhyme as well and add a gentle humour to the animals portrayed. Can you just imagine “two courtly, portly emperor penguins waddling across the polar plains”? We are also introduced to orcas, whales, elephant seals, krill and snow petrels and you can learn more about them at the end of the book.
There is also a double spread with information about the South Pole itself. I did not know that there is more than one pole! My favourites are the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility and the Southern Pole of Cold, and not forgetting the Ceremonial South Pole, around which scientists have been known to scamper whilst only clad in a pair of shoes!
I can highly recommend this book for children 2-8 years. Here are more suggestions for picture books that explore the coldest places on earth, with a bias towards penguins, because who can resist them?