An adventure into the world of books

Christmas Countdown: Doodle Bites by Polly Dunbar


Doodle Bites
Polly Dunbar
Walker Books, $24.95

There is often a message at the heart of each of Polly Dunbar’s picture books, but it’s always conveyed with humour and a bit of a wink to the reader. It also helps that each of her six characters are completely adorable.

There’s Tilly, a sensible, sweet natured little girl, Pru the chicken, Doodle the alligator, Tumpty the elephant, Hector the pig and Tiptoe the rabbit. Together they live in a small yellow house and have small-scale adventures that are modelled on real-life toddler traits.

The six books in the collection each focus on a particular character and theme. In Doodle Bites, everyone learns an invaluable lesson – don’t bite anyone, ever.

The story begins with Doodle waking up one morning “feeling bitey”; suddenly nothing is safe, not Doodle’s breakfast bowl, not the mail and not… Tumpty’s bottom. Soon there are tears, remonstrations, apologies and lots of sticking plaster.

Dunbar’s illustrations are fresh, simple and she’s remarkably skilled at imbuing each of her characters with loads of personality and emotion. The text is clipped, nothing fancy, but considering the books are pitched at toddlers, the tone, language and cheeky humour are spot on.

Doodle Bites is a sweet, warm and very funny book with loads of appeal.

You can check out Polly Dunbar’s website here and the other titles in the series are: Happy Hector, Pretty Pru, Where’s Humpty?, Hello, Tilly and Good Night, Tiptoe.


Yes, there has been a slight lapse in transmission. More on that later (not). This has been a big year for outstanding children’s books. I can’t quantify this in any way at all – it’s a statement based entirely on my own year of reading some really original, funny, moving books for readers zero & up. I say that because how can you put an age limit on brilliance? In the next few days I’m going to review some of my favs, but in the meantime, if you’re interested, here’s a piece I wrote for The Age recently on some of the year’s strongest titles. It’s by no means comprehensive, but it’s a start.

Mr Chicken Lands on London and Imagine A City



Mr Chicken Lands on London

Leigh Hobbs

Allen&Unwin, $24.95

How to describe the indescribable Mr Chicken? He’s impulsive,doesn’t make friends easily, but he’s always ready to lend a hand. He loves breakfast in bed, facts and figures and, above all, travelling. In 2009 Mr Chicken went to Paris to visit his French friend Yvette, now it’s London’s turn. Seeing Old Blighty through such inquisitive eyes reveals a city few have seen

Mr Chicken’s entrance befits his unique personality. No economy seating this time around – no, no – Mr Chicken arrives by parachute, causing barely a ripple in the middle of the Thames, just near Waterloo Bridge.

After checking into his suite at the Savoy Hotel, he devours a full English breakfast before taking in the sites, Mr Chicken-style. There’s a visit to Buckingham Palace, where a special flag is raised in his honour, St Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. When he’s not squeezing his formidable bulk into a double decker bus, he’s filling up an entire carriage on the London Eye or blithely blocking commuters on the Tube.

And Mr Chicken enjoys his mealtimes – each and every one of them. Central to the humour is the fact that no one is even the slightest bit perturbed by the sight of a very large chicken (with incisors) traipsing around the city.

The illustrations are intricate, frenetic and full of wry humour, with each of Mr Chicken’s foibles captured with economy and flair. Every mark on the page means something; every flourish and stroke either builds character, points to a visual gag, or adds another layer to the story.

If you enjoy the work of Quentin Blake, Tomi Ungerer or Ronald Searle, it’s difficult to imagine not liking this best-selling writer and artist. For younger readers there’s simple (very funny), yet strong storytelling with illustrations that reveal something new with each reading.


Imagine Coverimagine1Imagine2imagine3


Imagine A City

By Elise Hurst

Scholastic, $24.95

Bears riding bikes, cultured rabbits who can read, and a flying fish bus are just a few of the magical elements in this intricately illustrated story about two children visiting an extraordinary city.

Hurst’s delicate pen and ink drawings set the tone immediately and by the first couple of pages, you know you’ve entered a world full of curious creatures where the extraordinary is ordinary. This is a magical place that’s nostalgic, futuristic and original. The text is simple and open to interpretation and feels more like poetry than a direct ‘story’. I love the feeling the book conveys, you can’t help but imagine it being read by the glow of a lamp, to a little kid tucked up in bed on a wintry night.


*Disclaimer: I have the good fortune of knowing Mr Hobbs, and while he’s a delightful person, this has nothing to do with my admiration of Mr Chicken.

We’re Not Alone

photo 1photo 3photo 4photo 5

Early this month I went to Clunes Book Town. Every year, the little Victorian town goes book mad as second-hand booksellers turn every shop and most of the main street into one big fantastic bookish extravaganza. They are everywhere, stacked high on tables, in every shop, books, books, books. Rare (gorgeous hard backs with embossed covers), obscure (How To Build a Pickle Barrel), and lots of copies of Twilight and Jewel’s A Night Without Armor.

Then I came across this beauty.

I’m guessing Mark was probably about eleven when his folks gave him this book for Christmas. Was Dad out shopping when he saw UFO Encounters: Sightings, Visitations, and Investigations and thought, SON! The inscription reads To Mark, Love from Mum+Dad. Christmas 94. xxxxxx.

Did he stay up late looking out his bedroom window hoping to catch a glimpse of something amazing, as his mobile made up of the planets silently rotated above his bed?

Was Mark a dorky little kid with an unhealthy obsession with all things Roswell? I hope so. Maybe he grew up and saw something extraordinary in a plate of mash potatoes.

If he’s sporting facial hair and glasses, I think I know why.

Maybe he fell asleep dreaming of little green men, corn circles and the 62 South African kids who, in September 1994, saw something land in their school yard in Ruwa, Zimbabwe.

I bet he wished he was there.



Robert Ingpen adds a new classic to his list




The Adventures of Pinocchio

By Carlo Collodi

Walker Books, $39.95

IT seems appropriate to avoid starting this review with a lie. Until yesterday, I had never read Pinocchio. As a kid growing up in the 70s, it was Walt Disney’s version that came to mind every time I thought about that little boy carved out of wood. Turns out, the original story is far more imaginative, unsettling and intriguing.

Carlo Collodi was born in Florence in 1826. His parents were servants and dirt poor, so poor that almost all of Collodi’s nine siblings died before they reached adulthood. Like Pinocchio, Collodi must have dreamt of a different life and things did change drastically when a benefactor agreed to pay for Collodi’s education. When he was 22 he joined the Tuscan Army, and later became, among other things, a journalist.

In 1881 he started writing a serialised story for a weekly children’s newspaper.  Storia di un Burattino (Story of a Puppet) ran for two years, until 1883 when the collection was published as The Adventures of Pinocchio.

Loaded with morals and life lessons – “One must not be too fussy and too dainty about food. My dear, we never know what life may have in store for us” – the original story about a puppet who longed to be a real boy is much darker and more interesting than the Disney interpretation. And you won’t find Jiminy Cricket in a suit, either. The character of Pinocchio is fleshed out (no pun intended) and most of his encounters with the world are gritty and memorable. But the real hero of this new edition is the amazing illustrations. This is the latest classic edition by Australian artist Robert Ingpen  (winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal) who has previously illustrated 11 other Walker Books titles, including The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden and Peter Pan and Wendy.

In a flick of a brush, Ingpen captures Pinocchio’s wilful spirit, his pride and vulnerability. While the full-page illustrations are stunning, I love the tiny drawings too, especially Geppetto’s tools. There’s so much emotional subtly, not to mention beauty on every page and Ingpen really pays attention to the minor characters who cross Pinocchio’s path on his quest to become a real boy.

This is a beautiful book, illustrated by one of the most talented artists alive today. I was lucky enough to interview Robert some years ago – he was a disarming, fascinating man, so if you’d like to read it, click here.



Silver Buttons by Bob Graham


Silver Buttons

Bob Graham

Walker Books, $27.95

THIS picture book begins with Jodie studiously finishing off a drawing of a duck wearing a top hat, adding the final flourish at exactly 9.59 on a Thursday morning, which happens to be the same time that her little brother Jonathan pushes “slowly to his feet”, and takes his first wonky steps.

Mum’s in the kitchen learning how to play the tin whistle, while outside, the world prepares for another day; there’s people jogging, an ambulance whizzes by, a soldier says goodbye to his mum, a homeless woman pushes a shopping cart full of her belongings and Joseph Pascano avoids the cracks in the path so the sharks won’t get him. The ripples grow ever wider, as readers get aerial views of Jodie’s house, street, neighbourhood, and finally, the city. But Silver Buttons is not about geography, it’s about the small moments that make up our day, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the ones that go unnoticed, but happen anyway, and the one’s that only come around once.

A UNICEF Bologna Illustrator of the Year winner, Graham’s illustrations are humming with energy, warmth and humour. Every page delivers another layer to the story, making this a thoughtful reading experience for adults and children alike. I’ve always loved Graham’s characters and their environments; kitchens are crowded (not a gleaming bench in sight), dogs are scruffy, gender lines are blurred (Dad often wears the apron), different cultures are represented, and there is a strong suggestion that everyone has interesting internal lives. His characters are relatable, compassionate, relaxed, and engaged with the world.

Silver Buttons isn’t only an outstanding picture book, it’s also a subtle, non preachy, reminder to look beyond our own front door and seek a connection to something bigger.


Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

Rules of


Lothian, $24.95

Summer has always been the season of adventure – the days seem longer, darkness comes late and time feels less demanding. In Shaun Tan’s latest picture book, summer is also the season of discovery as two boys embark on a quest that either takes place in their own small, suburban world, or in another world entirely.

This is just one of the many opportunities for the reader to speculate about what may or may not be happening, as a nameless narrator passes on poetically-brief warnings about the consequences of not following certain arbitrary ”rules”, the first of which is: ”Never leave a red sock on the clothesline”.

Like most of his best-selling books (The Arrival, The Lost Thing, The Red Tree), Tan creates a new visual language with a story that begins on the cover where the boys can be seen at play in a landscape both exotic and achingly familiar. Rules of Summer poses an unending number of questions, making it both wholly original and endlessly fascinating.

While the lone red sock fails to catch a breeze, two boys crouch behind a fence as an enormous, fiery red rabbit, like a macabre animal run amok from a parade, squeezes down a back lane, a pink eye scanning the scene. The image first appeared in Tan’s The Bird King and other Sketches, and it’s interesting to note the changes the original work has undergone in this new setting.

In ”Never step on a snail”, a tornado bears down on an ordinary street on a cloudless day, and in ”Never give your keys to a stranger”, one boy watches television with a giant cat, while another peers through the window. Locked out? Too scared to come in? And what about the bird that appears on almost every page? Harbinger of doom, a talisman? Are the boys brothers or friends? There are no facts, only the answers you create.

About halfway through the book, the tone changes. ”Never ask for a reason” features the boys fighting as a group of creatures that appeared in earlier pages looks on. Tan’s pallet turns from blazing reds and yellows to smoky greys with ”Never wait for an apology”, which shows the younger boy, alone in a bunker surrounded by a menacing flock of black birds. An ordeal of some sort has taken place.

Visually, Rules of Summer shares its DNA with The Lost Thing, in which empty fields or blue patches of sky inevitably bump into a smoke stack, a nameless factory or an industrial wasteland on the suburban fringe.

Despite the incongruous nature of many of the images, there remains a vein of recognition throughout the book and when read on an emotional level, the characters aren’t nearly as aimless as they first appear: friendship, fear, adventure, that moment when you realise you’ve suddenly strayed from the familiar into the foreign – are all exquisitely rendered.

Rules of Summer is about superstition and the consequences, real and imagined, that come with the territory that is childhood. For older readers – anyone who isn’t considered a child – the book offers countless interpretations and layers that will make each encounter memorable.

Frances Atkinson blogs at

This review first appeared in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, 16th November, 2013.


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