From a wronged wolf to a catawampus cat and a rhyming rider, from the red dusty desert to the verdant forest, picture books can provide something to suit everyone's tastes.
Deborah Abela's Wolfie: An Unlikely Hero (Random House. 32 pp. $24.99) turns the old fairy-tale tropes and stereotypes on their heads, as Wolfie questions our preconceived ideas about how a storybook wolf should act. Eat cute fluffy rabbits or sweet little pigs––not on your life! This very modern wolf is in touch with his inner self, and he'd rather be saving the drowning or rescuing reluctant princesses. However, nothing goes to plan for this luckless lupine––including the hilarious final twist involving a dragon.
Abela's cleverly crafted text interweaves the cadences and formal storytelling structures of fairy tales with colloquial interruptions from the wolf––which are peppered with alliteration, assonance and righteous indignation. Illustrator Connah Brecon creates an endearingly scrawny, overcompensating wolf, who scowls, simpers and rages across the fairy-tale-character-infested pages of this wonderful book. Wolfie will no doubt entertain and delight children of all ages, as well as those who share it with them.
Children love big, musical words that roll off the tongue, and "catawampus" is definitely one of those words. It perfectly suits the self-contained, unique cat with a slanted view of the world in Jason Carter Eaton's The Catawampus Cat (Penguin. 32 pp. $16.99).
The cat arrives in a busy little town one Tuesday morning. At first, everything stays the same, but unusual and amazing things start to happen as people look at their world from a different angle. Soon, everyone in town wants to be different, just like the Catawampus Cat. How does the cat react to this? At first with indifference, but then he re-makes himself into something quite different again!
Gus Gordon brings his own unique interpretation to the cat's story, with illustrations that combine expressive cartoon-style characters, child-like doodlings, random text, cut-out images from old magazines, textured backgrounds, and quite a few neck-wrenching moments. Gordon's eclectic combination of the real and the unreal complements Eaton's clever storytelling. This is an entertaining and thought-provoking tale about seeing the world in varied ways, and the delights and difficulties of being different.
Tania McCartney and Christina Booth create engaging child-friendly history in This is Banjo Paterson (NLA Publishing. 44 pp. $24.99). The life story of Australian poet Andrew Barton Paterson is presented via childhood play, as a group of children bring his world to life in a very Aussie backyard, complete with the ubiquitous hills hoist.
McCartney retells Banjo's life in a straightforward and enthusiastic manner that will appeal to young children. She outlines Banjo's likes and dislikes, his fascination with horses, and his life-long love affair with rhymes and poetry. She explains where the pseudonym "Banjo" came from, the origin of some of his famous verses, including Waltzing Matilda, and she explores some of Paterson's other interests––including journalism, the bush, travel and sport.
Booth's gentle water-colour vignettes have an endearing immediacy, as a small boy in a red T-shirt pretends to be Banjo, riding around the backyard on a hobby-horse and sprouting rhyming couplets––contained in speech balloons––that will no doubt encourage children to join in the word play. Friends, family and pets also make guest appearances in Banjo's busy backyard, representing people in the life of one of Australia's most well-known and beloved poets.
An added bonus of This is Banjo Paterson is the inclusion at the end of the book of excerpts from some of Paterson's best-known poems, plus a beautifully presented double-page spread of additional historical information. This is a wonderfully accessible way to introduce history to young children, while encouraging them to go forth and rhyme!
Our environment often influences the way we live. This is certainly the case for the Aboriginal children in Josie Boyle's Mrs White and the Red Desert (Magabala Books. 32 pp. $17.99). The children live in outback Western Australia, in a "higgledy-piggledy" corrugated iron house that lets in the cold night winds and the hot desert sands.
When the children's teacher, Mrs White, visits them, she gets more than she bargained for as a desert storm hits––including a first-hand understanding of why the children's homework is often so grubby! Boyle's lyrical, exuberant and evocative storytelling is perfectly matched by Maggie Prewett's expressive, colour-saturated, vibrant illustrations, which together take the reader on a wondrous journey into the outback and the lives of those who dwell there.
The glorious jungle of greenery on the front cover of Anna Walker's Florette (Penguin. 32 pp. $24.99) has a tactile quality which draws the reader inexorably into the book. This is further reinforced by the endpapers. However, once inside, the imagery changes to one of drab greys and browns on a white background, as little Mae leaves behind her old house, with its large garden, and moves with her family to the city.
Where can Mae make a new garden amongst the multi-storey buildings and the cold cobblestones? At first, she delves into her memories and uses her imagination, drawing plants and animals with chalk on the pavement and on the packing-boxes that bedeck her home. But, outside, the rain washes away her images and, inside, the packing boxes slowly disappear.
As Mae explores her new town, she searches for greenery, but even the park is lined with tiny stones. Then a bright little bird leads her to Florette––a forest behind glass walls that unfortunately she cannot enter. However, Mae finds a small stalk of green that has escaped from the forest. She takes it home and nurtures it, and soon Mae and her newfound friends create a beautiful garden city of their own.
This is author-illustrator Anna Walker at her very best, dealing sympathetically and poetically with the difficulties for children of moving house and adapting to changed circumstances. Like the natural world that Walker champions in this exquisite book, Florette ignites the imagination and warms the heart.
Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder is a Canberra author, illustrator and editor. The first two titles Lost! and Amazing Grace in her award-winning Heritage Heroes series are now available in new editions.