Nicola Davies: Ride the Wind

Illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino

Published by Walker Books, 2020

The title of this picture book and the soaring wingspan of the bird on the front cover suggests that this story is all about an albatross. And it is. But it is also a tender story about a father and son, grieving the loss of wife and mother, and learning to live with her absence in their lives.

We meet Javier, his father Tomas and Uncle Felipe, on the choppy seas sailing the Magdalena off the coast of their hometown, catching fish and whatever else might get caught up in their nets. Tomas has changed since the death of his wife, and we learn from the things he says and they way he says it, that this change has not been for the better.

One afternoon, an albatross gets caught up in the fishing nets and is thrown aside on the deck of the boat while Tomas and Felipe sort through the catch. Javier, a boy with a big heart, keeps the bird safely wrapped in a tarpaulin and hides it until the boat makes it back to the shore. Once there, with the help of other people in the village, and without his father’s knowledge, Javier creates a makeshift home for the albatross.

In the old storeroom behind the house, the albatross settles and grows strong again in Javier’s old play pen. During this time, we begin to understand why Javier feels compelled to help the injured bird. Like the albatross leaving its partner in search of food, Javier’s mother left home to travel to the city for work, but she never came back. Javier needs to help this albatross find its way back. He knows it won’t bring his mother home again, but he understands the nature of waiting and wanting.

When Tomas finds out that Javier has rescued and hidden the albatross, his father is so angry that he does something unforgivable. Javier responds in the only way that makes sense to him. Suddenly, father and son must face their own worst fears and make brave choices about what it means to love and be loved.

This is a dramatic story brought to vivid life by the intimate connection between text and illustration. Rubbino’s drawings are brilliant and evoke all the emotions and pathos of the story. I can highly recommend it for children 4-8 years and anyone who loves a good story about albatrosses.

For me, however, this story is a gateway to understanding that we all grieve in different ways, and that communicating how we feel can be hard, even with the people that we love the most. 

Below are more suggestions for picture books about fathers and sons, a relationship that is precious, but not always easy. Fortunately, most of the books that are my favourites positively celebrate the wonderful bond that can be shared between fathers and sons:

Mitchell’s License by Hallie Durand Illustrated by Tony Fucile

Pete’s A Pizza by William Steig

On My Daddy’s Shoulders
by Peter Lawson

My Dad Used to Be so Cool
by Keith Negley

Enemy Pie by Derek Munson Illustrated by Tara Calahan King

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish by Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by David McKean

Every Friday by Dan Yaccarino

My Dad Thinks He’s Funny
by Katrina Germein
Illustrated by Tom Jellett

My Dad Still Thinks He’s Funny
by Katrina Germein
Illustrated by Tom Jellett

Big Boys Cry by Jonty Howley

When You Were Small
by Sara O’Leary
Illustrated by Julie Morstad

The Boy From Mars
by Simon James

The Deer Watch
by Pat Lowery Collins
Illustrated by David Slonim

Hello, Jimmy! by Anna Walker

Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall

No Kind of Superman
by Danny Parker
Illustrated by Matt Ottley

A Different Pond by Bao Phi Illustrated by Thi Phi

Spot Loves His Daddy by Eric Hill

Why I Love Footy
by Michael Wagner
Illustrated by Tom Jellett

Rachel Bright: Slug in Love

Illustrated by Nadia Shireen

Published by Simon & Schuster, Great Britain, 2021

This is a bright and cheerful story about finding love, taking chances, and following your heart. Who would have thought that a story about all of that could be imagined featuring a slug named Doug in need of a hug?

I’m in the garden almost every day, discovering slugs and snails under pots and in pots and slithering towards pots…they are squelchy, icky, slimy and yucky! So, I can understand Doug’s problem. Who would want to hug something like that?

But, one day, close to the white daisies and just over the log, there is a snail called Gail, who is just as grimy, icky, squelchy, and yucky as Doug. And she is gorgeous, with her red lips, red eyeglasses and leopard print shell. Gail looks like a perfect match for Doug…but is she?

There is a lesson here for everyone. Finding love can be hard, and sometimes the partner that you think will suit you best, is not the one that makes your heart sing. Sometimes, love surprises you most when you least expect it. The path of life and love is not always straightforward, but when it works out, we can be like Doug:

 he found his bug and now he’s super duper snug!

This is a picture book that can be easily read and understood by a child learning to read and, at the same time, appeal to adults who might be doing the reading for the fourth or fifth time! Like Jon Klassen and Mo Willems, Rachel Bright has created a story that is satisfying, humorous and instructive on many levels.

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 2-8 years and adults of any age. Below are more of my favourite picture books about icky, squishy, squelchy snails:

Snail Trail by Ruth Brown

Slow Snail by Mary Murphy

The Biggest House in the World
by Leo Lionni

Snail Trail by Jo Saxton

The Snail House by Allan Ahlberg Illustrated by Gillian Tyler

Are You a Snail? by Judy Allen Illustrated by Tudor Humphries

Snail, Where Are You?
by Tomi Ungerer

The Snail and the Whale
by Julia Donaldson
Illustrated by Axel Scheffler

Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature
by Joyce Sidman
Illustrated by Beth Krommes

Norman, the Slug with the Silly Shell by Sue Hendra

The Legend of the Golden Snail
by Graeme Base

Snail Crossing by Corey R. Tabor

Where Do You Live Snail?
by Petr Horacek

Pip and Posy: The Friendly Snail
by Axel Scheffler

Little Spiral by Pat Simmons Illustrated by Patrick Shirvington

Snail and Turtle are Friends
by Stephen Michael King

Snail by Fiona Watt
Illustrated by Rachel Wells

Julia Donaldson: The Hospital Dog

Illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

Published by Macmillan Children’s Books, Pan Macmillan, 2020

Dogs make wonderful pets. Some dogs are so wonderful, they become therapists!

We have friends who own two Havanese dogs, Josh and Viva. They are so well loved and hard working. Anne brings them with her when she visits residents in aged care facilities, nursing homes and respite care. They have little jackets to wear on these special visiting days. That way, everyone knows they have unique jobs to do. Sometimes just their presence is enough to bring a smile on someone’s face for the first time that day. Other times, the dogs’ exuberance is just the thing that encourages someone to go for a walk or get out of bed. Often, all a person needs is the unconditional acceptance of their little bodies being close and two hearts beating together. The residents will say to Anne, “Don’t come visiting again, unless you bring Josh and Viva with you!”

This picture book is all about a Dalmatian called Dot and her owner Rose, “with rings on her fingers and specs on her nose”. Rose takes Dot to all the sick children in Wallaby Ward and there we see how Dot can change the way people feel in one afternoon. Whether it’s calming someone’s anxiety or relieving the boredom of being cooped up and immobile, Dot seems to know just what to do. And Dot doesn’t just help the children who are sick, she also seems to sense that doctors and mothers need attention and care too.

One afternoon Dot does something very brave. In a moment, the tables have turned, and Dot is the one who needs to be patted, stroked, and cared for. The children of Wallaby Ward come to the rescue in the best way possible.

Julia Donaldson tells this story with so much love, bubbliness, and rhythm. The illustrations superbly compliment the text, with extraordinary details on every page. It’s as if Sara Ogilvie has taken her notepad to the hospital ward and sketched everyone and everything she saw. There are crutches leaning up against the wall, hand sanitizers, tea trolleys, pigeons, stethoscopes and all the paraphernalia of life to be seen on these pages. It’s comforting and familiar. I feel like I know Rose and Dot, they could be my neighbours…I wish they were!

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 2-6 years, it’s a sensitive introduction to the importance and relevance of pet therapy and how it can be used in a hospital setting. Below are more picture book suggestions that explore what it is like to feel unwell and going to hospital:

A Sick Day for Amos McGee
by Philip C. Stead
Illustrated by Erin E. Stead

Do I Have to Go to the Hospital?
by Pat Thomas

Clifford Visits the Hospital by Norman Bridwell

Maisy Goes to the Hospital
by Lucy Cousins

Curious George
Goes to the Hospital
by Margret Rey & H.A. Rey

Franklin Goes to the Hospital
by Paulette Bourgeois
Illustrated by Brenda Clark

I Broke My Trunk! by Mo Willems

Nurse Clementine by Simon James

Llama Llama Home with Mama
by Anna Dewdney

The Sniffles for Bear
by Bonny Becker
Illustrated by
Kady MacDonald Denton

How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon?by Jane Yolen
Illustrated by Mark Teague

Get Well Soon, Spot by Eric Hill

Betsy Goes to the Doctor
by Helen Stephens

Next Door’s Dog is a Therapy Dog by Gina Dawson
Illustrated by Vivienne da Silva

Taking Care of Mama Rabbit
by Anita Lobel

The Berenstain Bears
Go to the Doctor
by Stan & Jan Berenstain

I Don’t Want to go to the Hospital Tony Ross

I’m Really Ever So Not Well
by Lauren Child

Simon James: The Boy From Mars

Illustrated by the author

Published by Walker Books, London, 2017

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:

Mr Scruff
Dear Greenpeace
Nurse Clementine
Sally and the Limpet
REX
George Flies South

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

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