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:
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:
“What begins as a slow, distant glow grows and grows into a tired train that clatters down the tracks. A cool rush of wind quiets into a screech of steel and when the doors slide open, Milo slips aboard.”
I love the emotive, poetic language of this picture book. I feel like I am with Milo in the underground railway station, feeling that breeze that comes before the train arrives and hearing that screech as it slows approaching the platform.
I admire Milo’s imagination and the way he observes everyone and everything around him in the train carriage. A whiskered man with a face of concentration, a woman in a wedding dress whose face is made out of light, and a dog whose face he can’t see at all, but he can see that pink tongue peeking out amongst the whiskers.
We are not sure where Milo and his big sister are going, but we know that this is a trip they take together once a month on Sundays. We know that Milo has mixed emotions: confusion, love and worry. To help cope and keep himself from bursting, he observes and draws and imagines.
Milo imagines where that whiskered man might live, perhaps in a high-rise apartment with cats and rats and parakeets. Milo draws all these ideas on his notepad and tries to show his big sister, but she is too absorbed in her phone to take much notice.
At one stop, the woman in the wedding dress steps onto the platform while street performers play a wedding march tune. Milo imagines and draws a beautiful ceremony in a grand cathedral, after which the happy couple fly away in a colourful hot air balloon.
Soon a boy who looks quite different to Milo boards the train with his dad. Milo imagines what this boy’s life might be like: horse drawn carriages, castles, guards and servants fill his notepad. A life very different from Milo’s experiences, but something that he can still imagine.
A group of girls jump on board at the next stop and start break dancing in the carriage to collect a few coins. Milo imagines them dancing in all the carriages, being looked at there with smiles and interest. He also imagines what life is like for them outside the carriage, being observed in department stores and in well-to-do neighbourhoods. There are no smiles now, just suspicion and intolerance.
Milo then tries to imagine what people see when they look at him. Small, brown skin, glasses perched on his nose. Can people see him at school, at home, in his aunty’s apartment?
Finally, the train brings them to their stop. We walk with Milo and his big sister to a place where there is a metal detector and guards. The other boy on the train is there too, with his dad. Milo did not imagine this and he is surprised. Maybe, you can’t really imagine what a person’s life is like when you look at them. So, Milo re-imagines the people on the train that he observed and puts them in a different setting, gives them different lives.
And to his mother, in prison, Milo gives the best picture of all: a home, a cat on the windowsill, a green tree, a front door, and a mother, daughter and son enjoying the day in each other’s company, eating ice cream.
There are a lot of ideas and thoughts packed into this picture book. I can highly recommend it for children 6-8 years, to begin discussions about prejudice, racism, perceptions, assumptions, empathy, and all the ways you can use your imagination. Below are some suggestions for picture books which explore the themes of racism, prejudice and preconceived notions about the people we encounter in life:
Published by Little Hare Books, Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing, 2021
We live in houses full of stuff but when we go away for holidays, we take just a suitcase or two crammed with the essentials for pared down living. When we are small, we live in a world full of language, sentences, and expressions but we manage to communicate just the same with only a handful of words in our repertoire. Often our first utterances are mumma, dadda, no, mine and more. So, it’s wonderful to see these essential words in a picture book, being used in different situations, with various intonations and meanings, but absolutely understood by parent and child.
Mumma, dadda, no, mine and more are repeated on almost every page, beginning at the start of a typical day in the life of a family and ending at bedtime. The illustrations show us all that is familiar, mum combing her hair, dad brushing his teeth, baby refusing to put clothes, and wanting more toast for breakfast. Cleverly observed moments in a day of the life of a toddler reveal all the times when those five words need to be spoken, sometimes to confirm that the parents are present, other times to refuse to cooperate, and sometimes to insist on ownership!
Very young children will be able to engage with the text and pictures, and perhaps see themselves in some of the situations: not wanting to get in the bath and then not wanting to get out, not wanting to go up the playground slide but choosing the swing instead, tired for bed and wanting one last hug from mum and dad.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 1-3 years and below I have suggested more picture books which use few or no words to tell a story. Wordless picture books are wonderful for increasing vocabulary, starting discussions, developing comprehension, asking questions, and telling the story differently each time you read it, here are some of my favourites:
The goose on the front cover of this picture book caught my eye, mostly because my son affectionately calls me a silly goose sometimes! In my mind, a goose could never be anything to be feared, mistrusted, or avoided, unless of course that goose was nibbling my hand or chasing me around the farmyard. But that’s just it, isn’t it? The things that make me feel unsafe, worried, or anxious might not be the same for everyone. My worries and anxieties might take the shape of clawing ogres or dark looming shadows, but for someone else it just might be a big goose.
That’s the way it is for a little girl called Mindi. She’s such a sweet character, small and cute, with her yellow sweater and matching yellow gum boots. She is afraid of the goose that comes to her room unbidden and uninvited, that no one else can see. Her dad can’t find it, so he can’t get rid of it. Her mum can’t see it, so even threatening to smack it’s silly bottom won’t help.
Mindi’s parents have a problem, how can they help their beloved daughter?
Luckily for them, there is a wise old man called Austen who lives in the village nearby, perhaps he can help. When Mindi’s dad visits him on Shelling Hill, Austen gives some thought to the problem and says:
“I think you should bring Mindi to see me. Make sure she knows I live a long way away. Make sure she knows that she is going on a journey.”
Mindi and her dad make the short ‘long’ journey to Austen’s farm. Mindi greets all the animals, even two geese! But she makes a special connection with a young goat that Mindi names Black-and-whitey. This young goat has a special talent: if you give her a stone fruit, she will eat it and give you back the stone.
Herein lies the kernel of the story. Sometimes, we have to give something in return for a gift. Austen gives the young goat to Mindi, but in return, she must give Austen the Big Goose that no one else can see. It’s a decision-making moment for Mindi. As heavy as our fears and anxieties may be, their weight is familiar, and it can be hard to let go of them. What will Mindi do?
This is a wonderful story for children who might be experiencing anxiety or fear, real or imagined. It gives them a chance to read about what happened to Mindi, how she described her worries, how her family tried to help her and how they turned to the wider community for advice. It’s encouraging to know that solutions can be found, and that problems don’t have to remain as permanent features of our lives.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-6 years and below are more suggestions for picture books that explore what it is like to feel anxious, worried or fearful:
In the early 1950s, when my father was 17 years old, he left his small village at the foot of the northern mountains in Italy and ventured alone by boat to Australia. I can’t imagine the kind of bravery that takes. To leave all that is known and loved and take steps towards all that is unknown and unseen, is a lesson in understanding oneself and finding courage to face whatever dragons come your way. For my father, everything was new: the language, the food, the culture, the work, the people and the place. But despite the hardships and the challenges, he made a life for himself here, taking the best values from his home in Italy and his home in Australia to forge something good for his long life.
Anita, in this story, is leaving her village in the Dominican Republic and travelling with her family to America. She refers to the planes that will take her away as the dragons which look like large, winged beasts. Anita is a brave and feisty princesa in her village but as she thinks about what the future will look like and what she will be leaving behind, she compares the reality of what she has with the opportunities that are yet to come. Hot water, reliable electricity, and fancy restaurants all sound exciting, but Anita’s abuela is not coming and no longer will Anita breathe the salty air or dance in the blue waves in the spicy heat of the day. No longer will she be the adored princesa, the centre of life in her village.
As Anita and her family board the mighty plane, humming in readiness for departure, she cries aloud all the thoughts that are unspoken but threatening to overwhelm everyone:
“I won’t let this horrible beast take me away from everything I love! What if I hate it? What if I’m lonely? What if I get scared? What if I’m sad? What if I’m NOT brave at all?”
Despite the unanswered questions, despite the anxiety and not knowing what is ahead, the family bravely face the dragon of the air and whatever adventures await them on the other side of this momentous flight.
This is a story of courage and bravery during immigration, the rending of a heart torn between the known and the unknown and the emotional and physical upheaval of leaving one’s country for another. The illustrations are tender, and imbued with soft colours, creating a sense of place and helping the reader to visualise the bonds that tie us to our family and our home.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years and below are more stories that explore the idea of immigration, moving house and home, and what that might feel like in different situations:
First published by The Bodley Head Children’s Books, 1961
I think this would have to be my favourite story about Harry the dog. I remember reading it as a child and I still love the illustrations and the way the story unfolds, with gentle humour, awkward moments, and a quirky ending.
Harry, a white dog with black spots, has been given a birthday present from Grandma. Unfortunately, it’s a green knitted woollen jumper patterned with roses and Harry definitely does not like it. Despite the jumper being quite cosy to wear, Harry decides to lose it at the very first opportunity. But after a few clever attempts to lose it, leave it, and drop it, the jumper keeps finding its way back to Harry.
Alone at last in the park, Harry notices a loose stitch in the jumper and a nearby bird does too. Before Harry knows what is happening, the bird has flown down, picked up the loose strand of wool and zoomed away again. Before long, the jumper has unravelled altogether.
This is where the story gets really interesting! Harry knows where the bird has gone, but the reader doesn’t. What happens when Grandma comes for a surprise visit and no one at home can find the special jumper that she knitted for Harry?
The ending will make you smile, if you are not already smiling. The illustrations are gorgeous and tell the tale with so much flair using only black, green and orange for colour, in the style of Dr Seuss. The characters are endearing, and the streetscapes are filled with all the everyday things we know, similar to the art of Anna Walker and Serge Bloch.
If you like this story, there are more titles in the series, Harry the Dirty Dog (1956), Harry and the Lady Next Door (1960), and Harry by the Sea (1956) – all created by Gene Zion and his wife and collaborator Margaret Bloy Graham.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 3-6 years and below are more suggestions for picture books which explore the idea of gifts and gift giving, some welcome, some thoughtful and some altogether unexpected:
I have come to love the garden later in my life. These days I am happiest when I am outside in my pink gumboots, with grubby overalls on, and tending to the myriad of plants that are growing in the good brown earth.
I love flowers the most and sweet peas are one of my favourites. In Melbourne, sweet pea seeds are best planted in March and with some tender care, rain, sunshine, and compost, you should be rewarded with scented flowers by November. So much about gardening is waiting and watching. This year, the sweet peas in the garden are growing up the brickwork of our chimney and in June they are almost 3 feet high.
So, it was with some joy that I picked up this picture book with that wonderful title and read about a young girl staying with her grandparents for the summer holidays while her mum is in hospital. It’s a sad beginning, because even when we are young, we are already learning that life is not all about honey and crumpets. Some days are hard, there is much uncertainty, and we have to figure out how to keep going.
Luckily for this young girl, her grandparents live in a cosy home on a large block of land not too far away. Very soon, she is in the garden and her grandpa thinks it might be a good idea if his grand-daughter looks after the sweet peas. He even suggests that she could enter some blooms in the upcoming flower show.
There is a lot to learn: how to tie up the growing tendrils, how to remove old seedpods, how much to feed and when to water, how much sun and how much shade, and lots of waiting and watching. But even with all that care and attention, the sweet peas fail to thrive. What could be the problem?
Grandpa’s watering technique needs some tweaking it seems and with that mystery solved, the sweet peas begin to thrive and flower. The hard-to-grow blue sweet peas are picked and put in a vase for the flower show. Will mum be there to see her display? Will her blue sweet peas win a prize?
This is a lovely story developing the ideas of perseverance, holding on to hope, and finding your inner strength. The illustrations are bright and colourful and filled with the sense of all that is good about family and the bonds that keep us connected and motivated.
At the end of the book there is more information about the beautiful sweet pea, its history from humble beginnings in Italy, its introduction into England during the late 17th century and competitions which celebrate its current diversity in form, colour and fragrance. If you haven’t grown these gorgeous flowers before, grab a packet of seeds and give it a go, you will be rewarded by bunches of sweet smelling flowers in just a few months.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years, and below are more suggestions for picture books which explore the themes of gardening, gardens and growing plants:
Published by Little Hare Books, Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing, 2021
I remember sitting at the kitchen table the day before Australia Day this year and asking my daughter how she would be spending that annual holiday. Her response was to go to work as usual and take the holiday any other day but that one. It made me pause for a moment and think again about what I had gained at the expense of what others had lost. When we reflect upon Australia Day from the perspective of those whose land this has belonged to for so many tens of thousands of years, then our response to it must also be challenged.
Day Break confronts this uncomfortable truth and tells the story of how one family from three different generations approaches Australia Day.
At school, a young girl learns that January 26 marks the day “that white mendiscovered our country.” At home, her father tells her that his ancestors were already here for many thousands of years. And Nan says that they will not be celebrating the day by sleeping in or eating fish and chips or going to the beach, instead they will be going back to Country and remembering those who died and lost everything when British settlers came to this land.
Amy McQuire is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander mother and journalist from Rockhampton in Queensland and in this picture book she has written a narrative not only for her two young children, but for all Aboriginal children so that they can see themselves and their place in Australian history.
The story is a gentle but forceful reminder of what happened more than 200 years ago, the survival of the Indigenous people and their continuing fight for recognition as custodians and owners of this land in the past, present and future.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4 years and above, and below are more suggestions for picture books which help us to understand Country and what it means to be an Indigenous person in Australia:
You can be lucky in life when wild creatures freely come to you. A butterfly might land on your shoulder and rest for just a moment, an echidna might shuffle and snuffle close to your feet looking for food, a rosella might come to the seed bowl you have on the balcony table and feed from it, knowing you are just there. And when we see these creatures up close, it’s hard not to wonder what they are thinking as they go about their business, are we communicating, is there a connection, will they come back?
In this picture book, we meet Amira and she has a magpie that comes to her railing just outside the door, and she has a beautiful description for it:
“His eyes are black pearls. The white on his feathers makes her think, perhaps, he has daubed his wings with paint, to write messages in the sky, love letters to her, because she is his friend.”
The illustrations are soft, mostly black and white and grey, and on one page we see the magpie’s eye magnified, as if it is really seeing Amira and her dreams and hopes. Amira wants to imagine her beautiful magpie soaring through the skies and flying all the way to her home and her grandfather. Amira wants to imagine her grandfather recognising the magpie as a messenger from Amira herself, letting him know that she is okay, that she is growing, that she is thinking of him and can’t wait to see him again one day.
But for the moment, these are all dreams because it seems that Amira is far from her homeland and that her days are closed in by wire fences and dark shadows of detention. So for now, Amira’s favourite colour will be blue, she will dream that her magpie is free and that it will fly back and forth between her homeland and here, singing a song of hope and freedom.
This a wonderful story about hope when days are dark and the future is unclear, Amira, with her black and white cape and soft blue hijab, bravely faces her confinement by holding on to her dreams.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-6 years and below are more suggestions for picture books which explore what it means to be a refugee, seek asylum, hope for a better future and hold on to your dreams: