Imagine that!

Stephanie Owen Reeder explores the imaginative world of picture books

Picture books are a perfect vehicle for stimulating children's imaginations in diverse and interesting ways. William Joyce's The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore (Atheneum. 50pp. $19.99) is a celebration both of books and the imaginative worlds that lie within them. This stunningly designed and illustrated book tells the story of a bibliophile who records his daily thoughts and doings in a book. One day, his life is literally turned upside down by a hurricane and all his books are blown away.

By happenstance, Morris chances upon a magical house alive with books, where he happily sees out his days sharing the delights of the written word with others. But, when he moves on, as we all inevitably must, he leaves behind the book of his life - and so his story continues.

This paean to flights of the imagination, the joys of reading and writing, and the wonderful world of books is engagingly illustrated with old-fashioned, sepia-coloured images. They seamlessly meld the real world with the fantastic, as books fly through the air and the images within them come to life.

The story, which has already inspired an Academy Award-winning short animated film, is an important tale for our time, championing the power of story and the importance of books in our lives. This is a must-read for the next generation of book lovers.

Like The Fantastic Flying Books, Herman and Rosie (Penguin. 32pp. $24.99) has a very American vibe. Set in New York, it is an urban love story which touches the heart and stirs the imagination. Herman and Rosie lead ordinary lives. Herman, a crocodile, lives in a small apartment, works in a call centre, plays the oboe and watches films about the ocean. In the building next door lives Rosie, a goat who works in a restaurant, sings jazz songs, and watches films about the ocean. Will these characters, who are so obviously meant to be together, ever actually meet in this big, bold city?

Gus Gordon, an Australian author-illustrator, has skilfully brought the buzz and sensory overload of New York to life in this soulful tale about overcoming adversity and following your dreams. His multimedia illustrations - which include cartoon-style drawings and collages made from photographs, documents, postcards and newspapers - are visually arresting and highly appealing. Full of rich cultural and musical references, this is a clever and vibrant tale, which, like a catchy jazz riff, lingers in the mind.


The heroine of Emma Allen's The Terrible Suitcase (Omnibus. 32pp. $24.99) is not a happy camper when she does not get the rocket-decorated backpack she so desperately wants. Instead, her mother has bought her a boring, old-fashioned suitcase for her first day at school.

Her fears are confirmed when she finds she is the only one in her class without a backpack, so she hides in the cardboard box in the Imagination Corner and won't come out. One by one her friends join her, and she soon discovers that, with just a little imagination, her ''terrible'' suitcase has all sorts of interstellar possibilities.

Allen convincingly gets inside the head of her small protagonist, sympathetically representing the enthusiasms, tantrums and imaginative play of the young. With her trademark fluid and expressive illustrations, Freya Blackwood captures both the domestic delights of childhood and the wonder of children's imaginary worlds. Together they create a charming book that goes to the heart of the power of the imagination to alleviate the childhood fear of being different.

Both imagination and elephants burst out of the pages of Ursula Dubosarsky's Too Many Elephants in This House (Penguin. 32pp. $24.95). Eric's elephants energetically and exuberantly accompany him in every element of his busy daily life, filling his suburban home with a plethora of pachyderms. When Eric's elephants face an eviction order from his mum, he has to work out where they should go. Eric eventually comes up with an imaginative solution that makes everybody happy.

In this allegory about the need for children to contain the herd of elephants within them without extinguishing their exuberance for life, Dubosarsky expertly structures her story, first exploring Eric's life with his elephants, and then building up the suspense as Eric tries to work out just how to keep them under control. Ably assisted by Andrew Joyner's cartoon-style illustrations of elephants gallivanting with gay abandon across the pages, this joyous romp of a book unreservedly celebrates what it is to be a child.

The Little Dinosaur (Working Title Press. 32pp. $24.95) by Catriona Hoy and Andrew Plant is a much more serious, but no less imaginative, tale about large animals. It tells the story of a small herd-dwelling dinosaur in Gondwana Land. One day she has a nasty fall and hurts her leg. While the leg does heal, she runs with a limp, and in the end this is her undoing. Unable to get up after a second fall, the little dinosaur dies and, as the years pass, she finally becomes a fossil.

It is only when her fossilised remains are found that the little dinosaur is brought back to life through the knowledge and imagination of an artist. Hoy reconstructs the little dinosaur's story from what is known and what is surmised about dinosaurs, how they lived and what they looked like, thus creating a dramatic narrative firmly based in scientific research.

Plant's illustrations are also grounded in scientific fact. In atmospheric and panoramic images he convincingly recreates both the dinosaurs and other creatures that existed at the time and the landscapes in which they lived. This sensitive retelling of the life and death of one little dinosaur is sure to appeal to the legion of children fascinated by these extinct creatures. It also highlights how imaginative re-creation is an important tool for picture book authors and illustrators, as well as a very necessary part of childhood development.

Dr Reeder is a Canberra author, illustrator and editor, whose latest book is Amazing Grace: An Adventure at Sea.