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

Michel Streich: Scary Bird

Illustrated by the author

Published by Scholastic Press, NSW, 2020

My father emigrated to Australia in the early 1950s at the tender age of 17, leaving his small Italian village and family behind. He came to Melbourne, not knowing much about the language or the country, but prepared to blend together the best of what he brought with him and what he would find here. Learning the language was hard and making a life for himself even harder. Time and work and marriage softened the differences, until it was difficult to tell if he was more Australian or more Italian, but perhaps he just became a better version of both.

In this picture book, we see a small orange bird with green polka dots peeking nervously out of a closed box. An anonymous hand places it into a bird cage and the other birds completely freak out, they are not happy to make room for the scary newcomer. They worry about the lack of space, the food that will need to be shared, and the language they can’t understand.

A marauding mouse shares a little morsel of wisdom while pinching some bird seed, Hey, birdbrains! Don’t you know you’re ALL exotic birds?

And then the breakthrough happens. One soft pink bird with a curly tail decides to be a friend and the acculturation begins, stories are shared, accents are accepted and customs are admired. Before anyone knows it, the orange green polka dotted bird is part of the group, but what happens when the next scary bird comes along?

This a very clever story about acceptance, diversity, cultural norms and friendship. Being a newcomer is daunting for everyone, whether you are making a new country your home or starting kindergarten. Perhaps not so subtly, this story embraces the idea that when we focus on our similarities rather than our differences, the more harmonious all our lives can be.

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 2-6 years and below are suggestions for picture books that explore the themes of migration, fitting in and belief in the value of being you!

I’m New Here
by Anne Sibley O’Brien

The Littlest Yak by Lu Fraser Illustrated by Kate Hindley

Stellaluna by Janell Cannon

Strictly No Elephants
by Lisa Mantchev
Illustrated by Taeeun Yoo

Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio Illustrated by Christian Robinson

The Day You Begin
by Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by Rafael Lopez

Be You! by Peter H. Reynolds

The Big Umbrella by Amy June Bates and Juniper Bates

Josephine Wants to Dance
by Jackie French
Illustrated by Bruce Whatley

We Are Together
by Britta Teckentrup

My Name is Lizzie Flynn
by Claire Saxby
Illustrated by Lizzy Newcomb

Eureka! A Story of the Goldfields
by Mark Wilson

Ten Pound Pom
by Carole Wilkinson
Illustrated by Liz Anelli

Phillip Gwynne: Small Town

Illustrated by Tony Flowers

Published by Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, 2020

When my husband and I married, we moved to Northcote and discovered the delights of inner city living. We made many long-lasting friendships while we were there but there was one special lady who lived around the corner whom I have never forgotten. Her name was Gwen and she was old, ninety something and still living independently at home. Sadly, Gwen is no longer with us, but she told me something one day that I have never forgotten:  be kind.

Small Town by Phillip Gwynne is all about kindness and based on the true stories of small rural townships like Pyramid Hill, Nhill and Strathbogie that have revitalized their diminishing communities by inviting refugees and immigrants to make these places their homes.

Milly narrates the story and tells us all about her wonderful home called Gong Gong: “so nice, they named it twice” is a repeated refrain throughout the book.

Milly is a member of a basketball team whose players are all called Chloe! That is not a big problem, until one by one, members of the team move away to live in the city. Milly’s parents explain that sometimes families move because there is more work in the city and sometimes they move to be closer to larger communities.

At school Milly learns about refugees, war, famine and persecution. Observing all the space available in her hometown, the houses for rent and job vacancies, Milly decides to invite refugees to come and try country living. Milly makes a video with her Granny Mac, they send it out to the world, and wait and wait.

Soon, refugees are coming to Gong Gong by the carload and a township that was diminishing is revitalized with the influx of new families, some of whom play basketball! This is a wonderful story about people being kind to people and the amazing things that can happen when we embrace diversity in our lives.

Tony Flowers created the illustrations for this book and took inspiration for his images from exploring small Tasmanian country towns. Also take a close look at the end papers and check out the Flowers Bakery in the “video”, apparently it’s a tribute to Tony’s baking skills and the fact that his family owned a bakery in Victoria from the late 1800s to early 1920. Phillip Gwynne is an Australian author and best known for his YA novel Deadly Unna?

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years and below I have included suggestions for other picture books which explore the theme of kindness:

Finding Kindness
by Deborah Underwood
Illustrated by Irene Chan

Kindness Grows
by Britta Teckentrup

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

How to Heal a Broken Wing
by Bob Graham

Make Way for the Ducklings
by Robert McCloskey

Enemy Pie by Derek Munson Illustrated by Tara Calahan King

How Kind! by Mary Murphy

All Are Welcome by
Alexandra Penfold
Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman

The Farmer and the Clown
by Marla Frazee

Should I Share My Ice Cream?
by Mo Willems

Counting Kindness: Ten Ways to Welcome Refugee Children
by Hollis Kurman
Illustrated by Barroux

Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller Illustrated by Jen Hill

Cori Doerrfeld: Say Goodbye…Say Hello

Illustrated by the author

Published by Scallywag Press Ltd, London, 2020

Have you ever watched Sliding Doors? I’ll never forget Gwyneth Paltrow missing the train in one version of the story and catching the train in the other. The changes in her life all hinged on that one event. Does it make you wonder if this is the same for all of us? Life can feel like it is full of opening and closing doors. Simple decisions we make everyday have the potential to take us along different paths. Big decisions can too but we make them more consciously and we take time to weigh up the potential consequences of our choices, so I suppose it feels like we are more in control, but are we really?

This picture book by Cori Doerrfeld explores the ending and beginning of new experiences. Sometimes we have to say goodbye in order to say hullo. Sometimes, a fun day has to end so that we can embrace the cosiness of night-time.  Sometimes the loss of something or someone special can leave you feeling empty, but also gives a friend the opportunity to offer you comfort and friendship. Experiences that end or begin, whether we want them to or not, whether we planned them or not, can change our lives in ways that we can’t even imagine.

These are difficult concepts for children to understand but the various scenarios presented in this picture book are engagingly illustrated and cleverly chosen. In some ways, the different scenarios are like abstract opposites. Saying goodbye to sitting alone and saying hullo to sitting together. Saying goodbye to frozen snowmen and saying hullo to watery puddles. Saying goodbye to giving up and saying hullo to giving it one more try.

I love the acknowledgment that goodbyes can be sad and not something that you want to experience. Because who knows what is around the corner? It could be worse. But it could be better. Having a conversation like that with your child is one worth having, because life is not all honey and crumpets, and this picture book will certainly get the conversation started!

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years and below are more suggestions for books which explore the themes of leave taking, life changing experiences and saying goodbye:

Goodbye House Hello House by Margaret Wild
Illustrated by Ann James

Clare’s Goodbye by Libby Gleeson Illustrated by Anna Pignataro

Leave Taking by Lorraine Marwood

Gotta Go, Buffalo: A Silly Book of Fun Goodbyes
by Kevin and Haily Meyers

Oh No! Time to Go! A Book of Goodbyes by Rebecca Doughty

The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr

Moving Molly by Shirley Hughes

Oliver and Patch
by Clare Freedman
Illustrated by Kate Hindley

Alexnader, Who’s Not (Do you hear me? I mean it!) Going to Move
by Judith Viorst
Illustrated by Robin Priess Glasser

A House for Hermit Crab
by Eric Carle

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

Bob Graham: Ellie’s Dragon

Illustrated by the author

Published by Walker Books, Ltd, 2020

We all need to feel safe and secure. At different times in our lives we lean and rely on close relationships, beloved pets, our favourite food, faith in things unseen and personal belongings to keep us steady and anchored amidst the uncertainties of life. This need can start almost from the moment we are born. Dummies, blankets, soft toys, even our own thumbs can provide much needed comfort.

Sometimes we can even invent an imaginary friend to be with us. In this story, young Ellie finds a newborn dragon on top of a discarded egg carton. It is made up of all the colours of the rainbow and so tiny, the dragon baby fits in the palm of her small hand. Ellie names him Scratch.

The grown-ups cannot see Scratch, but when Ellie goes to kindergarten, some of her friends can see him. As Ellie grows, so does Scratch. When Ellie is about 10 years old, things start to change. Mobile phones, bedroom dancing and skate boarding fill Ellie’s days and Scratch loses some of his substance, fading away more and more, until he is barely noticeable. But one day, Scratch finds himself on the street and noticed by little Sam. Scratch is just what little Sam needs:

‘A fully grown, house-trained, affectionate dragon, just looking for a new home.”

This story reminded me so much of Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter Yarrow, based on the poem by Leonard Lipton (who was only 19 when he wrote it!) and memorably sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. Puff the Magic Dragon is all about Jackie Paper and his imaginary friend Puff. If you can believe Wikipedia, it seems that the original poem had an extra stanza where Puff did find another friend after Jackie Paper grew up…I hope so, it always made me sad to think that Puff was forever friendless and alone inside that cave on Honalee!

Bob Graham’s illustrations for Ellie’s Dragon are gorgeous, full of tiny details about the ordinary trappings of life; shopping aisles, trolleys, doll houses, streets and pavements, flying pigeons, lamplights, bus stops and sneakers. All this blending with the insightful recording of all the wonderful things that we can do together as families and with friends.

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years old and below I have included some suggestions about other titles which explore the idea of imaginary friends:

The Girl with the Parrot
on her Head by
Daisy Hirst
Imaginary Fred by
Eoin Colfer
Illustrated by
Oliver Jeffers
Leon and Bob by
Simon James
Lenny and Lucy by
Philip C. Stead
Illustrated by
Erin E. Stead
Jessica by
Kevin Henkes
Lottie and Walter by
Anna Walker
The Snow Lion by
Jim Helmore
Illustrated by
Richard Jones