Michael Morpurgo: Owl or Pussycat?

Illustrated by Polly Dunbar

Published by David Fickling Books, Great Britain, 2020

I think I have read just about everything that Michael Morpurgo has written…I just love the way he invites the reader into the story, makes the characters come to life, draws on our collective emotional experiences of what it is like to navigate the complexities of the world and shows us the way to go forward with integrity, honesty, and respect, even as we sometimes fail and make mistakes.

This story is about something that actually happened to Michael Morpurgo when he was a six-year-old schoolboy at St Cuthbert’s in England. His mum had read Edward Lear’s poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, to young Michael so often, and he had recited it so well in class, that the teacher nominated him to play the part of Owl in the Christmas school play. This was especially wonderful because the Pussycat was going to be played by Belinda…Michael’s best friend and the first girl he had ever loved. That’s a big thing for a six-year-old boy.

There are lots of preparations for the big night, lots of ups and downs in the rehearsals, but finally the curtains open on the stage and Michael and Belinda begin the performance of their young lives, as Owl and Pussycat.

All is going well, until the Owl picks up his guitar from the bottom of the pea green boat and his mind, voice, and heart freezes. The miracle that happens next is a testament to the wonder of friendship, love and team-work.

The illustrations for this story are so tenderly drawn by Polly Dunbar, with gorgeous details on every page: parquetry floors, costumes, paperchains, a double page spread for the opening night on stage and the wonder of friendship and miracles etched in people’s faces. An added bonus is that the end pages beautifully illustrate the complete poem by Edward Lear.

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years and anyone who has memories of school plays and being saved by a friend. Below are more picture book titles by Michael Morpurgo, but if you have older children, please check out his other popular junior fiction books, you won’t be disappointed:

Coming Home
Illustrated by Kerry Hyndman

Wombat Goes Walkabout Illustrated by
Christian Birmingham

On Angel Wings
Illustrated by Quentin Blake

Grandpa Christmas
Illustrated by Jim Field

Dolphin Boy
Illustrated by Michael Foreman

It’s a Dog’s Life
Illustrated by Patrick Benson

The Silver Swan Illustrated by Christian Birmingham

The Best of Times
Illustrated by
Emma Chichester Clark

The Little Albatross
Illustrated by Michael Foreman

The Goose is Getting Fat
Illustrated by Sophie Allsopp

We Are Not Frogs!
Illustrated by Sam Usher

Lauren Child: The Goody

Illustrated by the author

Published by Orchard Books, Hachette Children’s Group, 2020

I have read this picture book many times now and I still don’t know where to start. It’s not that I don’t like it, because I actually love it. And it’s not that I don’t have any thoughts about it, because I probably have too many, long after reading it.

Chirton Krauss (what a name!) is the main character and he is the very goodest goody. He is obliging, always eating his broccoli, even though it is his least favourite food. He has good manners, never picking his nose, even when he knows for sure that no-one is looking. He is kind, cleaning out the rabbit’s hutch once a week, even though his sister Myrtle should do it every other week.

Chirton’s parents are so happy with him, that they give him a Goody Badge. Now everyone knows and can never forget that Chirton is a goody. And then in red letters, like a commentary, we read:

If people have decided you are good, do not disappoint them by being bad.

So instead of this feeling of lightness that being good should bring, there is now an unsettling undercurrent of doubt. Where does goodness come from and should we continue being good for our own benefit or because of the expectations of others?

Myrtle, Chirton’s sister, seems to have things all worked out and is riding the wave of life on the back of her brother’s goodness. Myrtle is not invited to parties because she is not a good child, she isn’t made to eat vegetables she doesn’t like, and she is not expected to do her share of the cleaning of the rabbit’s hutch. And in red letters, we are informed:

That is lucky, isn’t it?

So instead of accepting the status quo, we are now thinking that life can be unfair for those who least deserve it.

When Chirton discovers his sister staying up late one night eating choco puffs and watching TV, simply because the babysitter can’t convince Myrtle to go to bed, it feels like that is one straw too many for a Goody to accept. Chirton finally asks himself:

What is so GOOD about being a Goody?

So, you see, the story is complicated, and it is not even finished! It throws up questions about why we do what we do, how our behaviour impacts others, why expectations are so hard to live up to, what is fair and what is not fair, and that sometimes you can be kind and nice just because it feels good when you are kind and nice. And the world needs more people who are trying to be good, don’t you think?

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years, it could be the starting point for long talks about what being good means and that could be applied to children and adults alike. Below are more suggestions for picture books which explore the themes of good and bad behaviour:

Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller Illustrated by Jen Hill

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
by Judith Viorst
Illustrated by Ray Cruz

Enemy Pie by Derek Munson Illustrated by Tara Calahan King

Where the Wild Things Are
by Maurice Sendak

Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild!
by Mem Fox
Illustrated by Marla Frazee

Words Are Not for Hurting by Elizabeth Verdick
Illustrated by Marieka Heinlen

Llama Llama and the Bully Goat by Anna Dewdney

Don’t Want To Go!
by Shirley Hughes

It’s Okay to Make Mistakes
by Todd Parr

Leonardo the Terrible Monster
by Mo Willems

Should I Share My Ice Cream?
by Mo Willems

What Have You Done, Davy?
by Brigitte Weninger
Illustrated by Eve Tharlet

No, David! by David Shannon

Erandi’s Braids
by Antonio Hernandez Madrigal
Illustrated by Tomie dePaola

Piggybook by Anthony Browne

When Mum Turned Into A Monster by Joanna Harrison

Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten
by Bob Graham

The Elephant and the Bad Baby
by Elfrida Vipont
Illustrated by Raymond Briggs

Because Amelia Smiled
by David Ezra Stein

Briony Stewart: We Love You, Magoo

Illustrated by the author

Published by Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, 2020

The engaging cover of this picture book just begs you to pick it up, and when you do, the story begins dramatically with no end papers to rustle through. Magoo, the silliest dogoo, is already into mischief on the first page. Lapping up eggs that are just waiting to be eaten, chewing teddy bears that should only be cuddled, scratching up doors that are barring his way in, drinking toilet water in the bowl…well, why not? It’s a pretty colour of blue! Like a cheeky toddler, Magoo manages to cause mayhem and mischief everywhere he goes, in the most endearing way.

Each time Magoo does something he shouldn’t, his adult owners show him what he can do. But being good is never quite as fun! The repeated refrain, “No, Magoo. This is for you,” is easy to learn and young readers will delight in yelling it out when Magoo is especially naughty.

The gentle rhyming text, the thick glossy paper, the wonderful illustrations and the charming character of Magoo himself all combine to make this an easy, breezy read. The end of the story is a happy one too, there is finally a YES for cheeky Magoo!

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 2-4 years and below are more of my favorite picture books featuring dogs:

Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton

My Dog Bigsy by Alison Lester

Bark, George by Jules Feiffer

Angus and the Cat
by Margorie Flack

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd

How Do Dinosaurs Love Their Dogs? by Jane Yolen
Illustrated by Mark Teague

Madeline Finn and the Library Dog by Lisa Papp

Charlie Star by Terry Milne

Kipper and Roly by Mick Inkpen

Mr Scruff by Simon James

Dog on the Tuckerbox
by Corinne Fenton
Illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe

Spot Goes to the Farm
by Eric Hill

The Hospital Dog
by Julia Donaldson
Illustrated by Sarah Ogilvie

Perdu by Richard Jones

Raymond by Yann &
Gwendal Le Bec

My Little Golden Book About Dogs by Lori Haskins Houran

Philip Bunting: Who Am I?

Illustrated by the author

Published by Omnibus Books, Scholastic Australia, 2020

I wish someone had given me this book to read when my children were young and wondering about concepts that were difficult to explain. Asking simple questions and giving thoughtful responses, Philip Bunting tackles some of the most profound questions we can ask ourselves at any age, starting with: Who am I?

This picture book begins and ends with rainbow end papers, and in the middle we discover that human beings are more than just their names or the stuff they own or their gender. We are even more than the colour of our skin or the way we think and feel. All of us are just people, one of many “pootling around” on a vast earth orbiting a sun in an infinite universe.

That could be scary for some, but ultimately our uniqueness, individuality and humanity can be the stuff that helps us to connect with one another, across all the things that outwardly make us feel different.

Each question is posed on a different coloured background on the left page with a corresponding answer underneath. On the page opposite there is an illustration to help explain the idea. As always with Philip Bunting, there is gentle humour in the text, with a “humourless jellyfish” appearing on the skeleton page and a note in the small print about guts and stuff suggesting that the bladder is not the organ of consciousness!

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years, it’s a thoughtful introduction for discussions which promote philosophical ideas about identity, self-love, self-perception and inclusivity. Below are more suggested picture book reads that cover similar themes, both humorously and seriously:

Avocado Asks by Momoko Abe

Be More Bernard by Simon Philip Illustrated by Kate Hindley

I am NOT an Elephant
by Karl Newson
Illustrated by Ross Collins

I Am Enough by Grace Byers Illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo

We’re All Wonders by R.J.Palacio

Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal

I Like Myself by Karen Beaumont Illustrated by David Catrow

It’s Okay to be Different
by Todd Parr

The Day You Begin
by Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by Rafael Lopez

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

Under My Hijab by Hena Khan Illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

Thelma the Unicorn
by Aaron Blabey

Whoever You Are by Mem Fox Illustrated by Leslie Staub

Perfectly Norman by Tom Percival

10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert Illustrated by Rex Ray

Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt Illustrated by Selina Alko
and Sean Qualls

Mary Wears What She Wants
by Keith Negley

Neither by Airlie Anderson

Jackie French: Pandemic

Illustrated by Bruce Whatley

Published by Scholastic Press, NSW, 2020

The last pandemic that affected many countries in the world was the Spanish Flu, arriving just as the Second World War was ending in 1918. Even though no one is sure where the virus originated, it is likely that soldiers brought it home with them on ships, planes and trains, and the virus spread quickly from person to person, home to home, workplace to workplace, country to country. Masks, quarantine and isolation measures, business closures and a rising death toll were commonplace. It sounds all too familiar doesn’t it?

By the end of 2020 every one of us will have their own story to tell about the way Covid 19 has affected them. For some, it will have been a time of great uncertainty, loss of work, increased stress in relationships and illness. For others, it may have been the catalyst for redefining their work/life balance, granting an unexpected opportunity to pursue new interests and flexibility in an otherwise entrenched lifestyle.

In Pandemic, Jackie French has written about her great grandmother’s tireless efforts to bring food, bunches of flowers, books, magazines and newspapers to people in her community who were in need and isolated from their work and their loved ones during the 1918 outbreak.

Marshalling help from survivors of the infection, whether they were children or adults, Jackie’s great grandmother organised help for farmers who could no longer work the land, milk their cows or collect eggs from their chickens. The story is set in a time gone by, but the heart of it is the same and we can still learn its valuable lesson: that kindness goes a long way on the road to healing and practical help gives people time to recover and get back on their feet again.

Bruce Whatley and Jackie French are a powerhouse team, having worked together on many picture book publications, some of which have focused on the natural disasters that have affected all of us as Australians: Flood (2011), Fire (2013), Cyclone (2016) and Drought (2018).

Amazingly, Bruce Whatley worked on the illustrations for Pandemic whilst quarantining for two weeks in an Adelaide Hotel and the illustrations reflect the limited art supplies he had on hand at the time. The muted colours give the story a historical feel, reminding me of old sepia photographs at the turn of the century.

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years, it is a gentle and positive introduction to the reality of pandemics. Below are suggestions for further reading on a similar theme:

Windows by Patrick Guest Illustrated by Jonathan Bentley

The Great Realisation
by Tomos Roberts
Illustrated by Nomoco

One Hundred Steps: The Story of Captain Sir Thomas Moore Illustrated by Adam Larkum

My Hero is You by Helen Patuk Developed by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Mental Health
and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings

Coronavirus: A Book for Children by Elizabeth Jenner, Kate Wilson and Nia Roberts
Illustrated by Axel Scheffler

What Color is Today?
by Alison Stephen

Peter H. Reynolds: Be You!

Illustrated by the author

Published by Scholastic Australia, NSW, 2020

When my oldest daughter left home at 18 years old, I remember thinking to myself that there were so many things I had yet to tell her. Up until then, life had been full of learning experiences, but so much of it had been busy with the clutter of ordinary day to day living. Eating, sleeping, school, friendships, activities, family…the things that fill our days and calendars. I felt like I had focussed on the small things and not so much on the big things.

This picture book by Peter H. Reynolds starts at the beginning where we all start, babies in a world which we must learn to navigate. But instead of moulding ourselves to fit the world, he encourages us right from the start, to stay true and be ourselves, ready to embrace attributes which will carry us through life.

Each double spread explores a different inspirational quality: be adventurous, be connected, be different, be persistent, be kind, be understanding, be brave. Each precept is accompanied by a short paragraph and an illustration as an example of what it could look like.

I think my favorite spread is Be Brave: Try new things. Take a deep breath and plunge forward into new experiences. It gets easier every time you try. The illustration shows us a young boy peering over the edge of a diving board. You do need to be brave to take that leap into the unknown.

This is an uplifting picture book that reminds us to be the best person we can be as we go out into the world every day and gives us the vocabulary to start a conversation with a small someone you love.

I can highly recommend it for children 2-6 years and below are more suggestions about picture books which explore the themes of self-esteem, self-acceptance, persistence and individuality:

Different by Lucy Brader
Illustrated by Nancy Bevington

I Love Me by Sally Morgan Illustrated by Ambelin Kwaymullina

The Mixed-Up Chameleon
by Eric Carle

You Matter by Christian Robinson

What We’ll Build: plans for our together future by Oliver Jeffers

Today I’m Strong
by Nadiya Hussain
Illustrated by Ella Bailey

The Proudest Blue
by Ibtihaj Muhammed with S.K.Ali Illustrated by Hatem Aly

Why am I me? by Paige Britt Illustrations by Selina Alko
and Sean Qualls

How to be a Lion by Ed Vere

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
by Dr Seuss

Who am I? by Philip Bunting

Rachel Rooney: The Worrying Worries

Illustrated by Zehra Hicks

Published by Affirm Press, South Melbourne, 2020

I don’t think I have met anyone who doesn’t worry about something. After all, there is plenty to worry about as we travel through life. Once the worry begins, it can be hard to keep problems in perspective and ultimately, the worry can be overwhelming.

Rachel Rooney has presented this complex issue that afflicts so many of us inside a gentle rhyming story about a small boy who traps a Worry in his net one day and decides to keep it close as a pet. Initially this seems like a great idea and they go everywhere together. As time goes by however the Worry pet becomes larger, more annoying, more itchy, more invasive and begins to feast upon the boy’s tears, sad thoughts and scary dreams. One day, the small boy realises that he can no longer live with this big Worry.

This is a great realisation.

What does he do? He goes to see the Worry Expert.

Her considered advice is to learn to live with the worry to minimize its negative affect in his life. Meditation, positive thoughts, yoga, dancing, exercising, having fun are all ways in which he (and we) can begin to achieve this.

I love the way that the Worry has been illustrated, it is like a small purple thumbprint with stick arms and legs. It is not scary or threatening, but benignly sits close to the small boy in everything he does. As it gets larger, you can see how much space it takes up and the purple thumbprint becomes more like a messy blob. When the Worry diminishes, it tries to thwart the different therapeutic techniques the small boy tries with his Worry Expert, but under her constancy and watchfulness, the Worry just becomes smaller and smaller.

This picture book, with its sensitive illustrations, validates the idea that sometimes we need professional help to overcome our problems. Together, the words and pictures provide a useful tool to begin asking the question, how are you today?

I can highly recommend this book for children 4-6 years and below are more recommendations for picture books that focus on worry and anxiety:

Silly Billy by Anthony Browne

The Worry Box by Suzanne Chiew Illustrated by Sean Julian

What’s Worrying You?
by Molly Potter
Illustrated by Sarah Jennings

The Don’t Worry Book by Todd Parr

The Huge Bag of Worries
by Virginia Ironside
Illustrated by Frank Rodgers

Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival

Worries Go Away by Kes Gray Illustrated by Lee Wildish

The Worrysaurus by Rachel Bright Illustrated by Chris Chatterten

Charlie Star by Terry Milne

Lena’s Shoes are Nervous
by Keith Calabrese
Illustrated by Juana Medina

Whimsy’s Heavy Things
by Julie Kraulis

Eric Makes a Splash
by Emily MacKenzie

Jill Murphy: Just One of Those Days

Illustrated by the author

Published by Macmillan Children’s Books, 2020

I love everything about the Bear family. Jill Murphy captures the familiar routines, trials and joys of parenthood with just the right language and rich illustrations.

I was hooked by the first page in Just One of Those Days because I remember how squeezy it was in bed with not only one child, but three…and how long the nights could be when you didn’t get enough sleep and still had to face the day ahead.

To make things worse, as you turn the page in the story, it is raining outside and so many layers of clothing have to be put on before heading out. My favourite colour illustration is the look between Mr Bear and Mrs Bear as they venture out to work and Nursery…it speaks of love and teamwork and support for each other. So that when it is just one of those days, everyone knows they are bound together in this journey, and able to get through all the things that can go awry.

I did laugh when Baby Bear could not drink out of his favourite red cup at Nursery. Unfortunately, Someone Else got it and as we all know, water does not taste as good in the green cup. My daughter had a favourite cup and a favourite seat at the table…it did not bode well for anyone if that cup ended up in Someone Else’s hands or that seat held up Someone Else’s bottom!

And I did smile when they all arrived home at the end of the workday and Mrs Bear put on her comfy pyjamas…I do that too! Pyjamas and pizza, and a surprise for Baby Bear from Mr Bear, which makes the story complete.

This picture book is like a warm hug and helps me to believe in the wonderful restorative power of the family where everyone plays their part, despite not having enough sleep and everything that can and does go wrong.

Jill Murphy has also written about the Large family…Five Minutes Peace is another favourite for me. It’s all a mother craves some days!

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 2-6 years and below there are more titles in both series to enjoy:

Mother Knows Best

Whatever Next!

Peace at Last

Five Minute’s Peace

All In One Piece

A Piece of Cake

A Quiet Night In

Mr Large In Charge

Margaret Wild: Pink!

Illustrated by Judith Rossell

Published by Harper Collins Children’s Books, Australia, 2020

A.A.Milne once said, “The things that make me different are the things that make me.”

How hard it is to accept that universal truth! Our differences define us, but they can also keep us separate. The colour of our skin, whether we are very tall or very short, too skinny or too large, too shy or too loud, the language we speak and the land we come from, are just some of the things that can contrive to make us unique. Can we be different and still fit in, can we still be part of the whole and retain our uniqueness?

In this story we are introduced to Pink. She is a small dinosaur, born the colour pink to very green dinosaur parents. Wonderfully, they love her just the same, her colour making no difference, in fact, they believe it makes Pink more beautiful, pretty and sweet.

But as Pink grows, she begins to realise that being pink can have its disadvantages.

Especially when playing hide-and-seek. Everyone can see her because, unlike all the other dinosaurs who are brown or green or blue, Pink cannot hide in the undergrowth of the forest. This makes Pink sad. Her mum has good advice however: “Try being happy with who you are.”

One dark afternoon when Pink is playing with her friends in the forest, they realise they are lost. How will they find their way home? Pink uses her wits and her colour to come up with a plan that will save them all.

I think we all need to be reminded that being who you are, with all your strengths and weaknesses, is part of the wonderful package of you. The things that make you different, also make you unique. There is no one else like you and isn’t that just marvellous?

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years and here are more suggestions for stories that explore the idea of individualism and being different:

The Day You Begin by
Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by
Rafael Lopez
I Love Me by
Sally Morgan
Illustrated by
Ambelin Kwaymullina
Thelma the Unicorn by
Aaron Blabey
Stellaluna by
Janell Cannon
Chrysanthemum
by Kevin Henkes
The Smeds and the Smoos
by Julia Donaldson
Illustrated by
Axel Scheffler
Whoever You Are
by Mem Fox
Illustrated by
Leslie Staub
Same, but little bit diff’rent
by Kylie Dunstan

Brenna Maloney: Philomena’s New Glasses

Photographs by Chuck Kennedy

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:

My Sister by
Joanna Young
The Seven Chinese Sisters
by Kathy Tucker
Illustrated by
Grace Lin
The Proudest Blue by
Ibtihaj Muhammad
with S.K.Ali
Illustrated by
Hatem Aly
Flo & Wendell by
William Wegman
I’ll Always Be Older Than You
by Jane Godwin
Illustrated by
Sara Acton
Whatever Happened to
My Sister by
Simona Ciraolo