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:
This is a creative picture book that explores the idea of being inside and being outside. You would think that this is a straightforward concept, but the illustrations are thought provoking, making the reader reassess their perspective and really look at the images to make sense of what they are seeing.
The book itself is oversized and wordless. Each double page spread has an image on the left that illustrates an interior, the opposing page places that interior image in its wider outside context.
My favourite double page spread shows a four-poster bed, with pillows scattered on the floor, and torn curtains. Some of the torn curtains have been made into a rope that is dangling outside a narrow window. All this is illustrated on the left-hand page. On the right-hand page, we see a castle nestled on a hilltop, pennants waving in the breeze, surrounded by mountains and a river. At first, you wonder how the images are connected but, looking closer, there is the curtain-rope dangling out of a high window in the castle, unnoticed by a guard. In the meandering yellow river below, a small maiden with long flowing golden hair is wading through the water to reach the bank on the other side. Yes, it’s a snapshot of Rapunzel making her escape and without a prince to save her!
There are many other cleverly illustrated images: the chaos of a cabin inside a yacht that is navigating rough ocean waves; a figure in a tent warming his hands by a fire inside the belly of a whale; a driver in a cab at the head of a long road-train winding its way through a barren landscape; the vibrating heart of a person who is bungee-jumping off a very tall bridge. In the final image, there is an old man looking out of the window at the night sky from inside his house. On the page opposite, you can see that only one house in a row of many houses has a light shining in the window. It must be his house and his light we are seeing, a silent viewer of the vast inky sky while everyone else sleeps.
Without written words to navigate the images, there is a lot to talk about! Not only is the reader encouraged to pay attention to the details in the illustrations, but they are also required to understand the connection between the images. This introduces the concepts of perspective and opposites, as well as narrative comprehension, so important for reading as children progress to chapter books and longer stories.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years and below are more suggestions for picture books which focus on the theme of opposites:
This is a lovely story about waiting, dreaming, hoping and a special seal, of course!
Young Noah is with his Nana at the edge of the wild blue sea. He is waiting for the seals to come closer to the shore. Nana is busy mending the boat and she is not sure the seals will visit this part of the coast. That doesn’t stop Noah from hoping.
While waiting for his Nana, little Noah starts to dig in the golden sand, and gradually the sandy mound begins to take the shape of a beautiful seal. With a pat here and a stroke there, with shells for its dappled back, spiky sea grass for its whiskers and glossy pebbles for its eyes, the seal stretches out to face the ocean with a contented smile upon its face.
A sudden storm blows in across the ocean, Nana and Noah must take shelter in the boat and leave the golden sandy seal to face the wind and rain alone. But when the storm blows over, the seal is gone. Noah hopes it has swum to safety in the waves.
Nana is not so sure and kindly promises a ride in the boat another time to look for frolicking seals but, just as they turn to leave, Noah spots a familiar shape on a rock close to shore. What could it be?
This story is a wonderful reminder of long, hot summer days, spending time with a beloved grandparent, dreaming of wild creatures in the watery depths of the sea, imagining them come to life, and hoping for something extraordinary to happen on ordinary days. We have made and decorated mermaids on the beach, how I wish they could have come to life on the sandy seashore. We are never too old to dream!
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 3-6 years and below are more suggestions for picture books which feature seals:
This is a wonderful picture book about our unique blue planet, I think everyone should read it, whether you are young or old. Within its pages, you will discover all the important things you need to know about our planet earth: the people who live in it, the animals that roam the skies, plains and seas, the homes we inhabit, the way we travel, the weather around us, the work we do, what we think, how we communicate, the ways we can love and hurt each other, and how we help one another.
It’s written as a handy guidebook for any curious and adventurous visitor from Outer Space that happens to stop by on its way elsewhere. The invitation comes from Quinn, a young boy lying on his bed who is thinking about the best way to describe the world he lives in, to someone who might not know.
The illustrations are breath-taking; my favourite double-page spread shows a large bird gracefully airborne, the image made up of a myriad of smaller birds within its shape. You can see a penguin, an owl, a flamingo, a puffin and a pigeon, just to name a few.
At the very end of this picture book, Sophie Blackall explains how the idea for it blossomed over many years, while she was travelling in different countries working for Save the Children, speaking to thousands of children and wishing she had a book just like this one to share with them.
The character of Quinn is based on a real boy, who said to Sophie that most likely visitors from another planet should be given mashed potato as a snack, because who knows if aliens have teeth? Very sensible.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 3-100 years, and below are more suggestions for books which look at our unique blue planet and explore the wonders within it:
“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:
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:
The colours are so vibrant in this gorgeous picture book. Little Gabriel is three years old and he wants to play a game with monsters. We meet his family one by one as Gabriel grabs them by the hand and calls out in a repeated sing-song refrain:
Come on, Josie,I WANT TO PLAY!You chase meand I’ll run away.
Young Josie, wearing a green polka-dot shirt and green trousers, becomes a hungry beast who is green and scary (but not really!) with sharp pointy teeth. Like the gingerbread man, little Gabriel runs away as fast as he can, that munching, crunching monster won’t catch him!
Uncle Rufus is next, wearing a broad rimmed hat and pink swirly shirt, soon to become a rampaging monster, with a big grin, horns like a cow and a pink twirly tail like a pig. Watch out Gabriel, he might catch you!
Nonna might play if Gabriel tugs her hand just right, and she becomes a schloping, schlurping pink monster made of jelly and laughs with enormous round eyes, all the better to chase Gabriel as he runs away.
Kitty Cat and Flower join the chase too, but it’s Mummy with her woollen jumper and zig-zag stripes who becomes a gobbling monster with spikes on her back and jaggedy teeth that likes to eat little boys, especially their toes and noses, and she joins the chase.
You can just hear little Gabriel’s infectious laughter as all his family joins in the fun, pretending and imagining, chasing and growling, with smiles and love. It’s bedtime all too soon and monster mum does what no-one else can do, the tables are turned:
Now you be a monsterwith a funny green head,who is tired and sleepyand ready for bed. Monster kisses,one, two, three,I love youand you love me.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 2-4 years old, the illustrations are endearing, the rhyming text bounces the story along, and little Gabriel will steal your heart away!
Below are more suggestions for picture books about monsters, in all shapes and sizes, some scary and others not so much, some familiar and some new, some funny and some cute, but all of them imaginary, because there are no such things as monsters, right?
Anything with eight legs is bound to capture the imagination. Octopuses are one of the marvels of the animal world with a swathe of fascinating features to amaze, impress and scare us, just a little bit.
The front cover of this picture book is very inviting. The cute little girl reminds me a bit of Madeleine with her blue dress and jaunty yellow hat. One half of the smiling orange octopus has four tentacles that curl around her and if you check out the back cover, the rest of its body curls around the blurb. Not scary at all.
The opening lines require some mental gymnastics as you replace pictures with words, which is great for young ones who cannot yet read because they can jump in with their own general knowledge and fill in the textual gaps.
The rhyming text bounces along quite merrily making it easy to learn that an octopus can do amazing things, like squeeze into tiny spaces, squirt black ink, camouflage itself, and that it has three hearts. Of course, it can do other things too, like cook, paint, play the drums and ball games, but perhaps that would be the start of another conversation sorting through fact from fiction.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 3-6 years and below are more picture books which feature this amazing creature, some are fun, some are fictional, who knew there were so many?
Some of us accomplish so much in a lifetime. Margaret Wise Brown was only 42 when she died, an artist and teacher from Brooklyn, New York. Fortunately, she left behind many manuscripts, some published in her lifetime and many published posthumously. This story by her, written in 1942, is one of my favourites.
The edition I have is a small board book, just right for reading, snuggled up on the couch with a little bunny of your own. You know it’s going to be an adventure because the little bunny in this story wants to run away from his mother. The mother, however, is prepared for the challenge and you can soon feel the enormous love she has for her bunny, a love that will span and overcome all kinds of distances and obstacles.
Each time the little bunny talks about how he is going to run away, the mother explains how she will find him again. We see their conversation with black and white illustrations and then, turning the page, we see the mother bunny in glorious colour becoming and doing all the things she needs to do, to find her bunny again.
The push and pull of childhood independence and motherly unconditional love gives a wonderful rhythm to the story and ultimately a sense of security and trust in the never-ending and powerful bond between mother and child.
It’s all quite majestic until the very last page when the little bunny admits that he will never really be able to run away from his mother because she will always find him. How he responds always makes me laugh…food fixes everything!
“Shucks,” said the bunny, “I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.” And so he did. “Have a carrot,” said the mother bunny.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 2-4 years and below are more suggestions for books about mothers, their children and the bonds that tie them together:
Today is one of those days for lying down on the grass and looking up at the clouds and imagining what all the shapes could be. I can’t remember the last time I did that. Lynley Dodd’s little board book has nudged me in that direction this afternoon and I find myself looking out of the window and letting my mind wander around wishes and things that might be.
In this little board book, Susie Fogg has taken Sam her dog for a walk along Jackson’s Stream. While she is there, with the lead in her hand and the grass and trees all around, her mind wanders and she wishes and imagines just what it might be like if Sam was something more than a dog.
“Sam,” she said,
You’re very good,
you never bark or bite.
The holes you dig
are not TOO big,
and you’re always home
But just this once
it might be fun
if you changed from dog,” she said.
“To something HUGE
or something FIERCE
or something ODD
After these lively, bouncing, rhyming words we follow Susie and all her various imaginative transformations of Sam. He is a dragon in a wagon, a bat with a hat, a whale in a pail, a chimp with a limp, a shark in the dark and more!
But after tripping over a mossy log, Susie is glad to find her beloved Sam right there beside her. After all, we could wish our lives away and never truly appreciate what we have already.
Lynley Dodd is best known for her award-winning picture books about Hairy Maclary and his friends: Slinky Malinki, Scarface Claw, Schnitzel von Krumm and others. From New Zealand, her picture books have been loved and celebrated around the world and have sold millions of copies.
I can highly recommend this picture book for children 3-6 years, and below are more suggestions for picture books which explore using your imagination, making wishes, and asking yourself the intriguing “What if…?” question: