Hazel Mitchell: Sweet Pea Summer

Illustrated by the author

Published by Candlewick Press, 2021

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:

In the Garden by Emma Giuliani

We are the Gardeners
by Joanna Gaines and kids Illustrated by Julianna Swaney

Up in the Garden and
Down in the Dirt
by Kate Messner
Illustrated by
Christopher Silas Neal

A Seed is Sleepy
by Dianna Hutts Aston
Illustrated by Sylvia Long

My Garden by Kevin Henkes

Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert

And then it’s Spring
by Julie Fogliano
Illustrated by Erin E. Stead

Isabella’s Garden
by Glenda Millard
Illustrated by Rebecca Cool

Yucky Worms by Vivian French Illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg

Florette by Anna Walker

Emily’s Green Garden
by Penny Harrison
Illustrated by Megan Forward

A child’s garden: a story of hope
by Michael Foreman

The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle

The Garden of Hope
by Isabel Otter
Illustrated by Katie Rewse

Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!
by Candace Fleming
Illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Sunflower House by Eve Bunting
Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt

And the Good Brown Earth
by Kathy Henderson

The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin

Bumpety Bump! by Pat Hutchins

Errol’s Garden by Gillian Hibbs

Plant the Tiny Seed
by Christie Matheson

The Last Garden by Rachel Ip Illustrated by Anneli Bray

Maisy Grows a Garden
by Lucy Cousins

The Selfish Giant
by Oscar Wilde
Illustrated and abridged
by Alexis Deacon

Captain Sir Tom Moore: One Hundred Steps

Illustrated by Adam Larkum

Published by Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, London, 2020

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” Christopher Reeve

This wonderful picture book is about Tom Moore and his pledge to walk 100 lengths of his garden before his 100th birthday to raise funds for all the NHS health workers in the UK. I remember seeing him on TV being knighted by the Queen and thinking that here were two people facing each other, similar in age, having witnessed and lived through almost 100 years of world history. One was royalty and the other an ordinary individual. Both, in their own ways, making and leaving their marks on the world.

Simply by walking, and declaring his intent to raise money, Tom Moore garnered the attention of the world, and reinforced the idea that you are never too old to have an adventure, make a difference and be the change that you would like to see.

In this picture book, the story of Tom’s life is told humbly, and with a sense of humour, and reflects a time gone by when the world was quite a different place. We learn about his love of cooking with his beloved mum and Tom’s passion for racing and riding motorbikes. Tom was 19 when WWII was declared, and he was sent to Burma when he joined up. Fortunately, Tom came home from the war and met Pamela, together they began the next stage of life’s adventures and soon had children of their own. There were many ups and downs, but family and love sustained him through it all. Even in his 90s, Tom made the trip to see Mt Everest, a long-held dream that finally became a reality for him.

Adam Larkum has illustrated this story with gentle humour and grace, enhancing the text and giving us an almost photographic glimpse of the world that Tom knew and lived. Scattered through the story are Tom’s pearls of wisdom:

“The first step is always the hardest, but unless you take that first step, you’ll never finish.”

You can do and be anything you want.”

“For those finding it difficult: the sun will shine on you again and the clouds will go away. Remember that tomorrow will be a good day.”

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years and below I have suggested other picture book biographies that have inspired me:

The Watcher by Jeanette Winter

On a Beam of Light
by Jennifer Berne
Illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky

One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon

Born to Fly by Beverley McWilliams Illustrated by Timothy Ide

Wednesday is Jim Day
by Catherine McLeod
Illustrated by Andrea Radley

So She Did: the Story of Mary Wirth by Simi Genziuk
Illustrated by Renee Treml

Miss Franklin by Libby Hathorn Illustrated by Phil Lesnie

Anne Frank by
Ma Isabel Sanchez Vegara Illustrated by Svetlana Dorosheva

The Little Stowaway by Vicki Bennett
Illustrated by Tull Suwannakit

Ada’s Ideas by Fiona Robinson

What Miss Mitchell Saw
by Hayley Barrett
Illustrated by Diana Sudyka

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look Illustrated by Meilo So

Marco Polo by Demi

Marie Curie by Demi

Ned Kelly by Mark Greenwood Illustrated by Frane Lessac

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Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick Illustrated by Sophie Blackall

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

David Biedrzycki: SumoKitty

Illustrated by the author

Published by Charlesbridge, 2019

It’s not often that I come across a picture book that addresses so many teachable values in life. SumoKitty oozes wisdom about humility, resilience, resourcefulness, satisfaction, complacency, opportunism and the value of hard work. Not forgetting the importance of enjoying what you eat!

There are a number of wise sayings in the story, but my favourite one is at the beginning: “’Fall down seven times; get up eight’. It means never give up.”

No matter what your age, we can all benefit from hearing that once in our lives. Because who of us has not come to a crossroad, a decision that rests on staying or leaving, when either path seems right, and the only decision we have to make is choosing which way to go forward?

We meet SumoKitty as a stray, who wanders into the heya (training centre) of a group of sumo wrestlers. Enticed by the wonderful smells of fish, noodles and plates of chicken, SumoKitty takes up residence and enjoys feasting on the culinary delights that are served up daily. One day, however, he is caught by the Okamisan (manager of the heya). To eat and earn his keep, SumoKitty must now work and rid the centre of all the mice which Kuma the sumo wrestler is so fearful of.

SumoKitty does the job well and gets so fat and lazy, that the mice who were chased away, start to come back. Quick as a flash, SumoKitty is tossed out of the heya, and the good fortune which was so abundant, is lost once again.

Here is the lesson for SumoKitty: stay lost and become a stray for the second time or take the opportunity to learn from past mistakes and move toward his heart’s desire. With the help of his friend Kuma, who has his own fears to face, SumoKitty finds a way forward. It takes hard work, perseverance and dedication, but combined with a little ingenuity and courage, SumoKitty and Kuma stand tall again.

I can highly recommend this book for children 5-10 years, the illustrations cleverly enhance the text, SumoKitty is sooo cute, and there is a photo at the end of the story of Sox, the original SumoKitty!

Here are my recommendations for more stories about resilience and how the vicissitudes of life have been navigated by others.

I have recommended Ella Holcombe’s picture book about her experience in the Black Saturday fires of 2009, I would advise adults to read it before sharing Ella’s memories of this event with young readers.

One Step at a Time
by Jane Jolly
Illustrated by
Sally Heinrich
How to Heal a Broken Wing
by Bob Graham
The House on the Mountain
by Ella Holcombe
Illustrated by
David Cox
Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten
by Bob Graham
Good Enough for a
Sheep Station by
David Cox
The Lion and the Mouse
by Jerry Pinkney
The Little Refugee
by Anh Do and
Suzanne Do
Illustrated by
Bruce Whatley