WHO would have thought that a picture book about five toys sitting on a shelf could be so intriguing, philosophically engaging and cute, all at the same time. In Waiting by Kevin Henkes (HarperCollins) little readers will glean a surprising amount as a group of toys watch and wait, as seasons pass and the world beyond their window changes. The text is brief, but expertly honed and features a genuinely touching story with universal themes.
Tackling “issues” in the picture-book format can be tricky; let the subject matter swamp the story and the magic dies, let loose an avalanche of sparkly sweetness, and subtlety dissolves. In Mr Huff, Anna Walker (Penguin) manages the balance perfectly. As young Bill grapples with anxiety, Walker’s sensitive and sincere illustrations soothe, and in the character of Mr Huff, Bill eventually finds a valuable ally.
Heartstrings get a workout in Sad, The Dog by Sandy Fussell and Tull Suwannakit (Walker Books). A cranky couple move house, leaving behind a dog they refused to name, so the mutt calls himself Sad. Everything changes for the better, however, when young Jack moves in and gives Sad the best friend he deserves. This is a moving friendship story about reaching out to the vulnerable.
Sad, the Dog by Sandy Fussell & Tull Suwannakit
Marc Martin’s story begins on the front cover – run your fingers over the embossed image of a rainforest and count the eyes peeping out of the shadows. A River (Penguin) is a stunning book that transports readers. Like the body of water that wends its way throughout the images, the environmental message is both vital and subtle
The Marvellous Fluffy Squishy Itty Bitty by Beatrice Alemagna (Thames & Hudson) is gloriously unsubtle. Edith is a girl looking for two things, her place within a family of overachievers and the illusive Fluffy Squishy. As she scampers around Paris (blissfully unsupervised) badgering shopkeepers, her confidence and personality blossoms.
Friendship also blooms in Imaginary Fred (HarperCollins) by Eoin Colfer and Oliver Jeffers, a picture book about the challenges that come with making friends, the upside to loneliness and the power of a vivid imagination. Colfer teases the humour out of the story, while Jeffers’ illustrations lend emotional weight.
Middle fiction readers had plenty to chose from, too. While thousands climbed The 65-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, lots of other books for readers between eight and 12 hit the shelves – including The Wolf Wilder (Bloomsbury), a fantasy adventure by Katherine Rundell.
Set in Russia, the “dark and stormy” Feodora and her mother live in the woods, teaching abandoned pups how to survive in the wild. When their cottage is burnt down and Feo’s mother is taken by Russian soldiers, a bleak, but gripping, detailed fantasy unfolds. While the tempo of the storytelling varies, the power of Rundell’s characters, both human and hound, linger beyond the last page.
Two especially lovely hardback books about cats and their eccentric “owners” also appeared in 2015. In The Cat With the Coloured Tail by Gillian Mears, illustrated by Dinalie Dabarera (Walker Books), Mr Hooper and his cat spend their days spotting heart shapes in “apple seeds” and “scabs on knees”, but when they realise the heart of the world is deteriorating, they set off on a pilgrimage to heal it. Short, sincere and powerful.
The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Canadian novelist/poet Anne Michaels (Simon & Schuster) is full of whimsy and just the right amount of sweetness as a mysterious heroine and her 16 cats seek adventure in even the smallest of moments. This book really comes alive when read out loud, with all of those carefully selected words dissolving on the tongue like meringue. A long way from whimsy is the hugely entertaining Son of Death by Andrew McDonald (Hardie Grant). This funny, tender and inventive story revolves around Sod, a 14-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a rock legend, but discovers a very unusual family secret.
YA readers enjoyed a bumper year, with lots of Australian authors exploring diversity, finding new ways into dystopian fiction and, perhaps the most frightening, unpredictable and exhilarating theme of all, relationships.
Lili Wilkinson’s Green Valentine (Allen & Unwin) is a sharp, wisecracking romance about the popular and environmentally focused Astrid and Hiro, the boy who hates her. But there is so much more going on in this book as Lobster Girl and Shopping Trolley Boy work out how to save the world – and more importantly, how fruit trees have sex. So good.
Relationships, intimacy and mystery lie at the heart of Vikki Wakefield’s Inbetween Days (Text). A book that got its hooks into me from page one and refused to let go. Set in Mobius, a small town famous for a mysterious tragedy and home to 18-year-old school dropout Jack (Jacklin) and Trudy, her brittle old sister, this is an utterly gripping read with authentic, complicated and relatable characters.
Fiona Wood’s Cloudwish (Pan Macmillan) was just as hard to put down. Deeply pragmatic, Van struggles under the weight of expectation. Her parents, Vietnamese refugees, assume she’ll finish school, go to university and become a doctor but Van has a secret wish and things get beautifully complicated when that wish comes true. Wood is a brilliant storyteller and in Cloudwish she delves into family relationships with empathy and skill.
Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Allen & Unwin) was no sooner published than Brad Pitt’s production company snapped it up. Set in 2575, Kady and her ex-boyfriend, Ezra, are stewing in mutual aggression over their break-up when their planet is attacked. The pair manage to escape, but on different ships. This addictive, chunky read more than lives up the substantial hype and while the clever inclusion of emails, IMs, dossiers and reports all add to the visual pyrotechnics, at its core this is a heartfelt story locked on hyperdrive, which makes the wait for book two all the sweeter.
Much less sweet is Risk by Fleur Ferris (Random House), a former policewoman and paramedic turned YA contemporary writer. Risk was at risk of reading like a lecture about the dangers of chat rooms and online stalkers, but with strong characters and a credible plot, this book is a gripping and frightening look at how two girls get caught up in the web.
Most 17-year-olds crave independence, but in Erin Gough’s authentic and tender debut novel, Flywheel (Hardie Grant), Del (Delilah) finds herself overwhelmed. Her mother’s out of the picture, her father is mending his shattered heart overseas, while Del attempts to go to school and manage the family cafe – and she’s in love with Rosa. Winner of The Ampersand Project, Gough’s book is tough and textured, and it doesn’t shy away from exploring the acute awkwardness that comes with trusting your true self to others.
If you’re looking for a satisfying book snack, pick up Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon (Corgi). This is a love story involving 17-year-old Maddie, a girl who has read “many, many more books than you”, because a medical condition means she has spent her whole life at home with only her mum, who also happens to be her doctor and her nurse. Isolation has made Maddie highly observant so when a new guy and his family move next door, a very unlikely but intense relationship begins.
Three outrageously gorgeous editions hit the shelves this year. First was the 150th-anniversary edition of The Complete Alice (Pan Macmillan) with a foreword by Philip Pullman. From its die-cut cover to its original illustrations by John Tenniel, this edition should only be read under the perfect tree. Cosier than a Gryffindor common room, Jim Kay’s fully illustrated, unabridged Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (Simon & Schuster), is a must for fans, or anyone lucky enough to be discovering her books for the first time.
And finally a hardback edition of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (Harper) designed by the graphic design team behind the Harry Potter movies. So much care and creative thought has gone into this project and it shows in the details; certificates, maps and letters makes reading or returning to this classic a special experience.
This piece first appeared in The Age, 2015.
Craft for the Soul: How To Get The Most Out of Your Creative Life
By Pip Lincolne, Penguin, $35
WHEN was the last time you were truly happy? It is a simple question that can trigger a ripple, even a wave of anxiety. ‘Happy’ is such a loaded word, despite the fact the official meaning throws up all kinds of affirming options like jolly, contented, cheerful and sunny.
In Craft for the Soul, Melbourne writer and crafter Pip Lincolne believes that making time for making stuff can have a positive impact on how we live our lives, and increase our levels of contentment. Whether it’s baking bread (the book also includes recipes and simple craft projects) or a desire to become a morning person instead of a night owl, the book features helpful prompts about finding creative ideas to inspire you.
Like Lincolne’s craft philosophy, her writing style is relaxed, friendly, inclusive and authentic. In a time where social media can be used to present only the very best moments of our lives, Lincolne writes about the downside of obsessing about the past and the importance of “pushing through” difficult times by offering pragmatic and supportive advice.
Anyone who has ever been lost in the simple rhythm of crochet or absorbed by a creative task knows how relaxing it can be. Pip takes it a step further, encouraging everyone, no matter their skill level, to tap into the therapeutic benefits of quieting the mind and focusing on a creative task.
Playful and sincere, Craft for the Soul is an uplifting, inspiring book for anyone who has ever felt like their life needs a boost – the books’ message is inclusive and Lincolne throws it across readers like the biggest Afghan rug you can imagine.
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
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 A City
By Elise Hurst
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.
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.
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.