From tales by celebrity authors and First Nations storytellers to novel-length memoirs and sophisticated non-fiction titles, the picture book genre in Australia continues to evolve and flourish.
The growing body of celebrity children's authors includes sports stars, actors and comedians. Publishers are obviously keen to encourage them, as such people have a high public profile that guarantees sales. Two Australian sports stars have recently joined the throng.
In Rabbit's Hop (Allen & Unwin. 42 pp. $19.99), AFL star Alex Rance tells the story of Jack Rabbit, the best hopper on Rabbit Island. Although frustrated by his inability to be the best at everything, Jack is keen to inspire the young rabbits with his mantra: "If you work hard, be kind, and enjoy yourselves, you will do great things." Jack demonstrates the truth of this when, despite self-doubt, he uses his considerable skills at hopping, zigzagging and chomping to help save a trapped whale. While the positive messaging could have been more subtly handled, the story is competently told and is accompanied by Shane McG's cutely engaging digital imagery.
Lydia Williams, goalkeeper for the Australian national soccer team, the Matildas, allows her storytelling to carry the message in Saved!!! (Allen & Unwin. 32 pp. $19.99). Based on her childhood experiences in the outback, the story follows a young Aboriginal girl as she plays sport with her animal friends. Lydia is upset by her inability to shine at basketball, running races or football--Kangaroo can hop higher, Emu can run faster and Koala can climb better than she can. But Lydia doesn't give up and, with help from her friends she finds her special place in the sporting world--as goalkeeper in a soccer team. Williams' engaging text shows an understanding of the cadences and storytelling structures required in a picture book, and illustrator Lucinda Gifford has created expressive and dynamic cartoon-style illustrations, with textured watercolour backgrounds that capture the colours of the outback.
Lucinda Gifford further showcases her abilities in Duck Duck Moose (Allen & Unwin. 32 pp. $19.99). This book for the very young has only three words of text--duck, moose and goose--which are repeated to great effect in different combinations and sizes throughout the book. However, it is the facial expressions and body language of the animals that carry the storyline in this clever and entertaining tale about forming friendships and trying to fit in. Like the text, the palette is minimalist--just green, yellow, orange and grey--while texture and patterning add to the overall visual impact of this delightfully different read-aloud treat.
In Goodbye House, Hello House (Allen & Unwin. 32 pp. $24.99), author Margaret Wild and illustrator Ann James demonstrate why they have been winning awards for picture books for over 30 years. Wild's deceptively simple first-person text, with just one sentence per page, perfectly captures young Emma's mixed emotions as she says goodbye to her old house in the country and moves to a house in the city, with all its exciting potential. Anne James' enchanting illustrations, in the style she used so effectively in the much-loved I'm a Dirty Dinosaur, feature textured watercolour backgrounds and black-and-white images that jump off the page. Emma is expressively drawn in deft black outlines--a sassy, outgoing little girl who faces this major change in her life with enthusiasm. Full of positivity and joy, Goodbye House cleverly conveys the importance of embracing change.
David Metzenthen is also a master of the pared-back text. In One Runaway Rabbit (Allen & Unwin. 32 pp. $19.99) he uses only 24 words to tell a complex tale of a pet rabbit's escape from his backyard and his night-time adventures in the wilds of suburbia. The elegant simplicity of the text, with its three-word sentences, leaves plenty of space for illustrator Mairead Murphy's striking deep-toned illustrations to convey tension, drama, menace, excitement and ultimate solace. What more is needed in a picture book?
Kirsty Murray and Karen Blair also explore the life of pets in the whimsical When Billy Was a Dog (Allen & Unwin. 32 pp. $24.99). Billy really wants a dog of his own, just like friendly Fluff next door. But mum and dad are not keen, and so Billy becomes the dog he so desperately desires, sleeping on the end of his parent's bed, eating from a bowl on the floor, and crawling around on hands and knees. Murray and Blair convincingly capture a child's ability to completely immerse themselves in imaginative play, and the visual reactions of the parents are a delight. With its puppy portrait endpapers, gentle humour, endearing evocation of family life and satisfying ending, this book will resonate with young pet-loving readers.
Magabala Books is renowned for producing high-quality titles created by Indigenous storytellers and artists. Darug woman Jasmine Seymour's Baby Business (Magabala Books. 32 pp. $24.99) is up there with the best. This glorious picture book celebrates traditional lore and connection to Country, as it documents the smoking ceremony to welcome a baby. The significance of each part of the ceremony is imparted in lyrical language, with Darug words seamlessly included in the text and a glossary provided to explain their meanings--an important addition in this International Year of Indigenous Languages. Atmospheric watercolour illustrations in earthy colours bring the bush to life, and white sacred smoke weaves and wafts around the sculptural figures, which are presented in strong blocks of colour that anchor them firmly in the landscape. This heart-warming book about belonging to place, community and family is perfect for sharing.
The latest offering from Dion Beasley and Johanna Bell stretches the concept of a picture book. Cheeky Dogs: To Lake Nash and Back (Allen & Unwin. 128 pp. $29.99) has a smaller format and many more pages than a traditional 32-page picture book. However, the charm, cheekiness and quirkiness that worked so well in their award-winning Go Home Cheeky Animals abounds in this funny, moving and inspirational memoir of Aboriginal artist Dion Beasley's life as a profoundly deaf child with muscular dystrophy. The combination of Bell's poetic, stream-of-consciousness storytelling and Beasley's nave and exuberant illustrations is sure to entrance and entertain older readers.
Another recent trend is the production of sumptuous non-fiction picture books for children. Bruce Pascoe's Young Dark Emu: A Truer History (Magabala Books. 80 pp. $24.99) reprises his award-winning book for adults, Dark Emu, presenting its findings for a younger audience. Stunningly presented in striking shades of ochre, orange, black and white, this seminal book invites young readers to contemplate a different picture of Aboriginal culture and the concept of terra nullius.
Pascoe presents first-hand accounts from early white settlers in Australia that indicate that, rather than being the nomadic hunter-gatherers we have been led to believe, Australia's First Nations people were farmers and agriculturalists, who lived in villages, stored food, baked bread and conserved the land. Pascoe's prose is passionate and erudite, and the first-hand accounts are telling. The book is liberally illustrated with historical images, including captivating 1860s silhouettes by Kwat Kwat artist Tommy McRae. Young Dark Emu is a fine example of how challenging, interesting and sophisticated picture books can be.
- Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder is a Canberra author, illustrator and reviewer.