An adventure into the world of books

Tag Archives: Picture Books



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.


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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.





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

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


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.


Starting School

Jane Godwin, illus Anna Walker

Penguin, $24.95

There’s no getting around it, the first day of school is a biggy. One minute you’re busily searching for that missing puzzle piece, or putting a Band Aid on Ted’s wonky arm, the next you’re road testing a back pack and writing your name on a brightly coloured piece of plastic that Mum calls a ‘lunch box’.

Polly, Sunita, Tim, Hannah and Joe know exactly how you feel. In Starting School, readers follow this mildly nervous bunch as they take their first steps inside the classroom.  Hannah is feeling excited, but Tim’s not quite ready to say goodbye to Mum. Polly is doing her best to be brave, while Tim finds distraction in a book about dinosaurs.

It’s a day full of firsts, but their teacher Miss Quick is never far away and does her best to make everyone feel welcome. First up is a tour of the school, and before you can say monkey bars, Hannah and Sunita are good friends and Tim and Joe have found a ladybird. Back in the classroom, Miss Quick runs through the rules (put your hand up when you want to say something), and makes sure everyone knows where the toilets are. Before you know it, the bell has rung and the playground is full of parents waiting to hear about The Big First Day.

Anna Walker’s illustrations are a delight; she manages to capture each personality and reveal the unspoken in the tilt of a head, stripy tights, or little, nervous hands. The colours are muted and soothing and the book is brimming with her own particular eye for detail.

One of best aspects of the book is that it acknowledges a few of the worries some children might have about starting school – practical things like queuing up at the tuck-shop, getting lost, or finding the toilets. Jane Godwin’s text is playful, but it is also direct and reassuring, and may go some way to help children feel a little less nervous about that first day.

This is the fourth (hopefully not the last) collaboration for Godwin and Walker (Cat and the Big Red Bus, Today We Have No Plans, All Through the Year) and once again they’ve managed to create a beautiful picture book for young readers.

*this book was kindly sent for review.




House Held Up By Trees by Ted Kooser, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Candlewick Press, $27.95

Before I even opened this book, the cover tossed up a memory – of long country drives, catching glimpses of big houses hidden by high hedges and gates. Sometimes I’d see a peaked roof, or a tall chimney,  an overgrown garden, or a long driveway lined with pines.  Then there was the small houses, cabins or huts left to decay, or the lonely stone cottage in the middle of nowhere. These images were only flickers – swift flashes out a car window but as a kid, they always lit up my imagination.

This book tells the story of a house built on the edge of a forest and home to two children and their father. While the kids love playing in the cool of the forest, the father prefers to mow his immaculate lawn, removing any stray leaf or twig that blows his way. Years pass, the children become adults, while their now elderly father still fusses over his patch of green, until one day he decides to sell and move closer to the city. The house goes up for sale but no one wants to buy it, instead seeds eventually grow into tress and by the end of the book, the house has returned to the forest and is majestically held aloft by maple, elm, ash and cottonwood.

Written by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Ted Kooser, the melancholy story beautifully captures our need to control our environment and slow down the relentless passing of time. Kooser’s honed text conveys other themes too, giving readers subtle hints about how the children relate to their father – like the house itself, as his children grow up, he gets left behind too.

Jon Klassen’s (I Want My Hat Back) illustrations are no less insightful. Clean and precise, every page reveals a different perspective on the house (we never see inside, only the exterior), from above, from the edges of the forest, each brush stroke captures nature slowly reclaiming what’s theirs.

So who is this book for? It’s difficult to say. Very young readers (three plus) might respond more to the visuals, while old readers (six plus) will have a better chance at picking up the nuances. There’s no right answer. This is a book for anyone who enjoys original story telling and perceptive, haunting illustration.

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The Christmas Quiet Book, by Deborah Underwood, illus Renata Liwska, Houghton Mifflin, $19.95

Find a moment if you can – stop the wrapping, turn down the oven (the turkey is almost done), and pour yourself a little something. Yes, The Christmas Quiet Book is for children two, three years and up, but any frazzled spirit will find this book soothing. Deborah Underwood’s story is beautifully simple  (there’s lots of humour to be found , too) with only one or two lines on each page; “Knocking with mittens quiet”, “Snow angel quiet.”


In the days leading up to Christmas, bunnies, bears and a very cute iguana decorate the tree, ice skate, drop in on other furry friends, and patiently wait for December 25. The illustrations are quite simply adorable and each of Renata Liwskas’ characters convey a genuine feeling of warmth, and with Christmas Day only hours away, it doesn’t get much better than that.


You can read Renata’s lovely blog here and if you happen to live in Yarraville and still need one more gift.. the Younger Sun Book Shop has a few copies left.

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Merry Christmas!


The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, illus Renata Liwska

The Loud Book by Deborah Underwood, ills Renata Liwska



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