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Reviews: 6 Fantastic Picture Books

The Lamington Man by Kel Richards
Illustrated by Glen Singleton

Scholastic Australia 2011 (2009)
22 pages
Picture Book

My mum sent this to me for my baby, Hugh, and it’s a fun version of The Gingerbread Man. Here, we have a man made from lamington that runs off gloating about how fast he is, until he’s tricked by a crocodile and eaten. It has cute cartoon-like illustration that bring the lamington man to life, accompanied by text that leads to a feeling of satisfaction that someone gets to eat him – and shut him up!

If you’ve never had a lamington, you’re really missing out! They’re an Australian cake, traditionally made into squares: you bake a kind of plain vanilla cake the day before, then trim the edges, split it in half, join the halves together with whipped cream, cut into cubes and then coat them in chocolate icing and roll in coconut. I’ve made them a few times – they’re fiddly but worth it!

The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew it Was None of His Business by Werner Holzwarth & Wolf Erlbruch
Alternate Title: The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit
Translated by Anova Books Ltd.

Chrysalis Children’s Books 2001 (1989)
Hardcover (small format)
32 pages
Picture Book

This is the story of a mole who, when he sticks his head up out of the ground one day, is poo’d on and he sets out to discover who did it. It never says “something did a poo on him”, instead it says (in brackets):

“It looked a little like a sausage, and the worst thing was that it landed right on his head.”

The mole, being short-sighted, can’t see who did it, so he asks all the animals around, but they show him how they do it and he can see that their poo is quite different (and all the while there’s this big turd still on his head).

My sister recommended this to me, along with The Gruffalo and a few others, and she always has great recommendations. Aside from the fact – yes, fact – that little kids are fascinated by their own bodily functions, in its own way this book teaches you how to recognise the excrement of different animals and birds. Don’t you just love it?!

Okay so maybe you have to read it to get the appeal, but it truly is a funny and delightful book, that says a lot without actually saying anything. Even the title has a double-meaning: “business” referring to going to the toilet, meaning that the mole knew he hadn’t gone to the toilet on his own head. But it also refers to the expression, mind your own business.

My one complaint is that I got the hardcover edition, but I got the tiny version. It is about the size of my hand, landscape-oriented, and while it’s cute it is a bit hard to read, especially when you’re reading it sideways so kids can see the pictures as you go (and the pictures are cute, too!). So if you’re buying it online, check the dimensions first.

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson
Illustrated by Axel Scheffler

Puffin Books 1999
32 pages
Picture Book

In the big dark woods, a mouse is going for a walk when he meets a fox that, thinking the mouse looks like a good meal, tries to lure him back to his den. The mouse is an intelligent little thing, and explains to the fox that he can’t come because he’s having lunch with a gruffalo. The fox has never heard of a gruffalo before, so the mouse starts to describe a terrible monster who likes to eat roasted fox. The fox, terrified, runs away. The mouse is molested by an owl next, and then a snake, and each time he tricks the animals into thinking there’s a bigger, badder beast in the woods than they.

Until the mouse meets an actual gruffalo, just as he described it, and the gruffalo wants to eat him too. But he’s still got some tricks up his sleeve, does mouse!

This is an absolutely wonderful story that I’ve read to my 2 month old baby several times already – he has no idea what’s going on of course but the pictures grab his attention and I can do silly voices that make him grin and squeal; the word “gruffalo” seems to delight him and the cadence of the rhyming text does too. I can’t wait till he’s older and can actually enjoy the story of the clever little mouse who outwits the bigger, stronger animals of the woods – great lesson in that, but also lots of fun!

Small Saul by Ashley Spires
Illustrated by Ashley Spires

Kids Can Press 2011
32 pages
Picture Book

Saul has always dreamed of a life at sea, so when he was old enough he tried to join the navy, only he wasn’t big enough. “Fortunately, pirates aren’t so picky, so he enrolled in Pirate College.” I just love this book, and the illustrations are gorgeous as well as adding to the humour – the text may imply something, but the pictures really add extra detail. It wouldn’t make a great audiobook, for example. There’s just so much going on without being overwhelming. Like, in one picture there is the sheet of rules for Pirate College:

1. Never brush your teeth.
2. Take anything you want.
3. “Arrrr” is a valid response to all questions.

It’s especially cute because Hugh, my nearly-three-month-old baby, sometimes makes an “Arrrr” sound – and sometimes only opens one eye – so I dub him Pirate Hugh. You know how you get private jokes going…

Anyway, this story of small Saul trying to cut it as a pirate on The Rusty Squid, when he’d rather hand out flowers instead of robbing ladies, and tries to make the ship “a bit more homey. Sadly, his efforts failed to impress his crewmates.” (They do eventually realise that they need him, as the ship begins to get squalid after they push him overboard.)

The irony-laced text along with the clean, fresh illustrations really bring Saul and his naïve ambition to life. I’ll have to look into her earlier book, Binky the Space Cat, as well as her new one, Larf.

The Very Cranky Bear by Nick Bland
Illustrated by Nick Bland

Scholastic Canada 2009 (2008)
24 pages
Picture Book

Another Australian picture book that’s made it to Canadian shores, yay! This is a really delightful tale of four friends, Zebra, Moose, Lion and Sheep, who escape the rain by taking shelter in a cave and playing a card game to wile away the time, until their entrance awakens a very cranky bear who shoes them back out into the cold and wet jungle (it’s a kids picture book – don’t worry about the realism of a sheep and a lion being friends, or that they live in a cold jungle. It rhymes, and it reads well!).

Lion, Moose and Zebra each come up with crazy ideas for making the bear happy, thinking that he must be cranky because he has no stripes, no horns and no mane. It’s quiet Sheep that realises what Bear really wants: a nice pillow so he can get some good sleep!

The illustrations are reminiscent of Disney animations, being bold and clean and over-emphasising of classic traits. Yes, the sheep looks like a pink poodle, but she looks damn cute too! The rhyming text is very engaging, with details – like sheep being left out in the cold – captured by the pictures. There’s lots for kids to look at, while the text is uncomplicated.

It also has a great message, about not making assumptions or judgements about people you don’t know, not assuming that everyone should conform to your own standards, and getting across the idea that what makes people happy etc. is different for everyone. The Zebra says, “If I did not have stripes, I’d be cranky too.” So she paints stripes on the bear. (The illustration of the bear with mud stripes, antlers made of branches, and a mane of grass gave me the giggles!) Sheep, on the other hand, stops to think about the bear from a different perspective, tries to understand the bear, and that’s what gives her idea success. Very good life lessons!

When I Dream of ABC by Mr Henry Fisher
Illustrated by Mr Henry Fisher

Top That! Publishing 2011
64 pages
Picture Book

I had to get this because the pictures were so wonderful – reminiscent of The Wizard, the Ugly and the Book of Shame – but I was thrilled to discover that the text was very funny too. Each double-page spread is a letter on the left and an illustration on the right. The text doesn’t rhyme but in about four short lines describes the thing for that letter with creative flair and a great deal of cuteness (but not very factual).

N is for Nurse.

Nurses are very kind and gentle and
help to make you feel better with
medicine and lollipops.

Q is for Queen.

Queens are married to kings and tend
to be very bossy. Most queens eat too
much chocolate and have lots of shoes.

V is for Vampire.

Vampires are very pale because they
don’t eat their greens. They come out
late at night and drink hot chocolate,
through little holes in their teeth.

I would love to show you an example of the pictures – T for Train would be one of my favourites – but the book is large and square and my scanner is too narrow for it.

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat by Jenny Wagner
Illustrated by Ron Brooks

Happy Cat Books 2009 (1977)
32 pages
Classics; Picture Book

This is a classic Australian picture book, that every school library has tattered copies of. It has been around since the 70s and is still very much in print. It definitely has the feel of an older style of picture book, as the illustrations – pen cross-hatchings and water colour – as well as the story itself have a more mature feel, not at all feel-good or cartoony.

This is the story of Rose, a widow, who lives with her dog, John Brown. They have a quiet but lovely life together, one of routine and companionship. When a cat turns up outside at night, that life is threatened – for John Brown, anyway. Rose tries to befriend the cat, but John Brown is jealous and pretends not to even see the cat. When Rose becomes sick and doesn’t want to get out of bed, though, he finally realises that the midnight cat can bring new life to his beloved companion.

It’s a very sweet story though laced with undertones of sadness – I think this is why it wasn’t a favourite of mine as a child. I was a very sensitive child and the story was too upsetting for me – in a good way. But I still avoided it, going instead for upbeat picture books like my favourite one, Quentin Blake’s Mister Magnolia. But it’s not a story you can forget, so I got a copy of this recently to add to the collection, for it is a wonderful story, a thought-provoking story, and kids love it with good reason.

See here for 9 more wonderful picture books!

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