Thursday, January 17, 2013

12 Exciting New Picture Books for the New Year

I'm a little behind in my reviews of children's books so I thought I'd start the year with two bumper posts. This week I review 12 new picture books that children of varied ages will enjoy. I have grouped them into two age categories (0-5 and 6-12 years). Next week I will review new books for independent and older readers.

1. Books for young children (0-5 years)

'Ruby Learns to Swim' by Phillip Gwynne & illustrated by Tamsin Ainslie (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

This very simply book is one I'd call a mixed genre. It has the form of a recount and yet, it is poetic at the same time. It follows Ruby as she learns to swim.

Splash the water
SPLASH the water
Learn to swim!

Floaties on
Floaties ON
Learn to swim!

Tamsin Ainslie's delightful illustrations take you on Ruby's big adventure.  This will work with all preschool children, especially if they've experienced the joy and challenge of learning to swim.

'Farmer John's Tractor' by Sally Sutton & illustrated by Robyn Belton (Walker Books, 2012)

Sally Sutton's wonderful picture book will resonate with anyone who has been on a farm or knows a farmer. There is often a 'rusty yet trusty and orangey-red' tractor tucked away in the shed of many farms, just waiting to be released for action. The simplicity of the verse, the clarity of the story and pull of the plot - like the rising flood waters themselves - will engage listeners and readers. When the VW is stuck in the rising floodwaters, and the jeep, the tow truck and the fire engine all become stuck, there is need of a rescuer. I can't wait to read this book to some children. Robyn Belton's line drawing and watercolour illustrations help this story to come alive. A great read for any child aged 1 to 5.

'Run Like a Rabbit' and 'Growl Like a Tiger' by Alison Lester (Allen & Unwin, 2012).

Allen & Unwin has published two more board books for toddlers by the acclaimed author/illustrator Alison Lester.  As always, the illustrations are simple, arresting, amusing and support the text perfectly. As we've come to expect from Lester, the language of the texts have their typical preciseness, simplicity, economy and elegance. See if your child can 'Run like a rabbit'?

I can...
run like a rabbit
jump like a frog
laze like a lizard
stretched out on a log

If not, perhaps you can read them 'Growl Like a Tiger.'

I can rumble like a lion
if I'm tired and grumpy
or growl like a tiger
when I'm wide awake
and jumpy

Enjoy these delightful books with babies and toddlers. My youngest granddaughter (aged 18 months) loved them!

'Mouse Mansion: Sam & Julia' created and written by Karina Schaapman, with photographs by Ton Bouwer (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

This is a lovely picture book that tells the story of two mice, Sam and Julia, who are best friends. They live in Mouse Mansion, a wonderful place with many rooms, and families. Sam is shy and well behaved, while Julia is curious and at times stubborn and naughty. Julia lives on the sixth floor with her mother, her only family member. Sam lives in the middle of the house with his very large extended family. The creator of Mouse Mansion made up the stories of daily life as she constructed the amazing miniature house, its furnishings and its mice. The details are extraordinary and Ton Bouwer's photographs capture the intricate details in every room and scene. The images of the Mouse Mansion alone will keep young readers returning time and again to this book to paw over every detail and imagine life in this place.

The model of Mouse Mansion, the setting for the book

The text itself is simple and is in recount form with each double page telling of yet another adventure in the daily and seasonal happenings of the mansion. Sam and Julia play in their cubby under the stairs, help to take out things for the ragman, cook pancakes with Sam's grandma, play the violin in the music room, visit Sam's cousin Sophie for her birthday, help to hoist preserved food in the loft and so on. I can't wait to show this book to my grandchildren who I know will just love it. Children aged 2-7 years will enjoy this book.

'Heather Fell in the Water' by Doug McLeod & illustrated by Craig Smith (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

Doug MacLeod is a well-known Australian writer of comedy for adults and children. Many will remember his best-selling book 'Sister Madge's Book of Nuns' that children find very funny and read again and again. As the title suggests Heather manages to fall into water wherever she finds it; or does it find her! She ends up wet in the park, on a farm, in the art gallery and so on. Eventually, her parents make her wear 'water wings' (we everywhere she went. She learns to hate the water, but her parents manage to encourage her to learn to swim, with a surprising outcome.

I love Craig Smith's watercolour drawings; they will make any reader want to splash in the water like Heather. MacLeod's text has the simplicity of a good picture book and an ending that will amuse the young reader. A good read or read along for children aged 2 to 6 years.

2. More challenging picture books for older readers (6-12 years)

The following new books are picture books that will work at different levels for children aged 6-12 years. All are more challenging books that can be enjoyed by adults as well as children. For example  'The Selfish Giant' is a classic tale that has depths that only adults will plumb, and yet, it will be enjoyed by children in the primary years.

'The Selfish Giant' by Oscar Wilde & illustrated by Ritva Voutila (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

This story by the Irish wit, playwright, poet and novelist Oscar Wilde was first published in 1888 in his first collection of fairy tales. The story has been a favourite with many for over a century. This new production of the story in picture book form is magnificently illustrated by Finnish born Australian artist Ritva Voutila. Every double page features a stunning oil painting with incredible detail and characters that ooze personality and emotion. A fitting set of illustrations for a great literary work.
The Selfish Giant was written by Wilde as a moral tale that deals with the themes of love and redemption. Every afternoon as they leave school, a group of children play in the Giant's garden. The giant has left and the children treat it as their own. But after seven years the Giant returns to his home, which has been the children's paradise and banishes them. "What are you doing here?" he asks. But without the children the garden descends into an endless season of winter.

One day the giant hears a small linnet bird singing a sweet song outside his window, he sees it as the spring arriving and as he looks out he sees that the garden has burst into blossoms and that in every tree there is a small child.  All except one that is. Underneath this tree is one who weeps. The Giant takes pity on him and lifts him into the tree, and knocks down the walls allowing the children to once again take possession of the garden.  Years pass and the Giant grows old and feeble. One winter's day he looks out the window and sees a single tree surprisingly in bloom. Underneath it stands the same little boy he had lifted up into the tree years before. He runs into the garden and to his shock and horror sees that the boy has wounds caused by nails, on his hands and feet.

'Who hath dared to wound thee? cried the Giant; 'tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay them.'
'Nay!' answered the child; 'but these are the wounds of Love.'

The Giant asks 'Who art thou?' and he falls before the child in awe. And the child smiles at the Giant and says 'You let me play once in your garden; today you shall come with me to my garden, which is paradise.' That afternoon, the children find the Giant dead and covered in white blossoms.

Some reviewers find the Christian symbolism confronting in the story, but I would ask why, for children's stories are filled with symbolism, moral tales and even religious, philosophical and ideological comment of one form or another. Wild's story is brilliant, and should enjoy lasting use and popularity. The book is suitable for children aged 7-12 years.

'Can We Save the Tiger?' by Martin Jenkins & illustrated by Vicky White (Walker Books, 2011) 

This is a stunning book which was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2012. Conservationist Martin Jenkins and Vicky White celebrate some of the world's most endangered species in this book and show us why we must try to save them. Martin is a conservation biologist and consultant for the UN conservation organisation WCMC. Vicky White had experience as a zookeeper at the Cheshire Zoo caring for great apes. This is Vicky's second book; her first was 'Ape'.

The book has stunning images and a punchy text that confronts the reader. It begins with the matter of fact reminder that some of the animals and plants we have shared the planet with "...have coped with the changes very well. But some haven't. In fact, some have coped so badly that they're not here any more. They're extinct". Jenkins then introduces us to five species that are extinct, the Dodo, Steller's Sea Cow, the Tasmanian Tiger (Marsupial Wolf), Great Auk and Broad-faced Potoroo, before another challenge, "and then there are all those species that are still around, but only just." Like the tiger!

This is without a doubt one of the best conservation picture books that I've seen. White's illustrations are fine-grained pencil sketches, some in colour and some simply black and white, and are wonderful. They invite you to gaze and browse for the pictures alone. Children aged 5 to 12 will love the book. 

'Wild Child' by Jeannie Willis & illustrated by Lorna Freytag (Walker Books, 2012)

This is a visually stunning book thanks to Lorna Freytag's illustrations that blend photography and drawing to form glorious collage-like images. But the text is equal to the images, and while deceptively simple verse, it carries a strong message. In this picture book we meet the 'wild child' who is fearless and free. She is living a fairy-like existence in a mystical world of rugged landscapes.  She shares her world with her brothers 'Bug and bear. And badger, bat and fox and hare'. And her sisters, deer and mole, skylark, squirrel, vixen, vole. Is this the very last child, left in the wild?

Willis takes us through the wild child's day of freedom, curious exploration, and (as she expresses it) no rules or grown ups 'to catch me and ruin my fun'. This she contrasts at the end to our domesticated children who we wash and dress with sensible shoes to be sent off to school 'to do sums'. Her book asks, could there be a wild child left? Maybe 'It's you!'

Children aged 4 to 7 will enjoy hearing or reading this beautiful book that ends with a punch!

'Unforgotten' by Tohby Riddle (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

Tohby Riddle is an incredibly talented illustrator and author. His latest picture book is a masterful blend of verse and haunting photographic collage. He manipulates and merges multiple photographs, drawn images and clever design, to create a haunting and mystical story of an angel who rather than being the helper and guardian, ends up needing the help of others. Using images from various archives and his own drawings, Riddle pricks our imaginations to consider who are the guardians of the guardians.

'Nobody knows where they come from.
But they come.
Impossible birds
of the big sky
with faintest whispers
and silky rustlings
no car can hear.
They come.'

As always, there are many layers to Riddle's latest work that will take you back to the stories and the images again and again. A single reading will simply not be enough. Bravo Tohby!

'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore' by William Joyce & illustrated by Joe Bluhm (Atheneum Books, 2012)

Many of you will have met Morris Lessmore in eBook format on your iPad, or perhaps through the Academy award winning short film that inspired the book app version. But now we have the paper version. I hope dear readers that you appreciate the irony. An eBook that set the children's literature field abuzz with talk about the ground breaking potential of digital books, is now popular enough to sell as a paper book. I have reviewed the eBook on this blog before (HERE), but this time we have just the two dimensional images and words. No animation, no sound, no dramatic visual effects. Nothing to push and poke on screen. Does it still work? It certainly does, for now you concentrate far more on the text and the story. 'Morris Lessmore loved words. He loved stories. He loved books. His life was a book of his own writing, one orderly page after another. He would open it every morning and write of his joys and sorrows, of all that he knew and everything that he hoped for.'

Morris Lessmore is a solitary person who loves words and books. But his life is turned upside down (literally) by a storm of massive proportions - this was inspired in part by Hurricane Katrina.  Morris survives and is saved by books as he takes refuge in a library. But he finds that the books and their words give him so much more. He stays to look after the books, but is also looked after by them and their stories. Many years later as he ends the writing of his own story, his life ends and he is replaced by another who can find solace in all the books Morris had cared for. But now there is one more, the story of Morris that waits to be read.
Morris Lessmore is no less remarkable as a paper book than as an eBook. In fact, it is a reminder that in any reading there is movement, sound, animation and 3 dimensions. All of course, in the mind of the reader. In a strange way, the experience of the eBook and the video enriches the reading experience of the paper book, as memories of the past digital experiences of Morris Lessmore enriches the reading.

'Do Not Forget Australia' by Sally Murphy & illustrated by Sonia Kretschmar (Walker Books, 2012)

As an Australian this is a picture book that has special meaning. It tells the story of Villers-Bretonneux in France, and the role the Australian troops played in regaining the town on the 25th April 1918, just a day after it had been lost in the world's first tank battle between English and German forces. It tells the story through the eyes of two small boys, one from the French village, and the other, a son of one of the Australian troops in Villers-Bretonneux. It also tells of the fundraising after the war by Australian children that led to the rebuilding of the school in the French village.

But this is a story that is just as relevant for children of all nations for it says much about war and the sacrifice of men and women for the good of others, who are often strangers from different countries.  It also tells of the gratitude of the French people who swore at the end of the war that they would 'never forget Australia', and almost 100 years later they haven't. Today there is a memorial in this town to the 10,000 Australian soldiers who died on the Western Front, and every classroom in the school carries the sign 'Never Forget Australia'. It is a moving and powerful testimony to the bravery, service and sacrifice of many during war. Sally Murphy is a wonderful writer and Sonia Kretschmar's beautiful and 'earthy' slightly stylistic illustrations - in muted tones of grey, brown, green and yellow - are stunning. Great reading for individuals or for classes aged 6-10, especially at the time of memorial days in any country.

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