Telling stories using animal characters enables picture-book creators to pursue a range of themes that resonate with young readers. For this reason, Graeme Base's distinctive books often feature birds and beasts from around the world. In the elegant Moonfish (Puffin. $26.99), Base takes his storytelling underwater.
Deep beneath the surface of an ornamental pond, anthropomorphised fish and other creatures go about their daily lives under the protective gaze of the dragon-moon. But it wasn't always so. The unlikely hero of this folktale-inspired story is an ugly-duckling creature adopted by an elderly couple. Because he's different, this strange young fish is bullied and belittled at school and dubbed "Moonfish". Like many other antiheroes, Moonfish heads off on a quest to discover who he truly is and where he belongs.
Drawing on oriental art and literature, Base creates a convincing other world. There are echoes of the philosophical picture book The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek, as Moonfish consults a series of "wise" creatures about his true identity. Their responses allow Moonfish to gain an insight into the complexities of life and Base to indulge his love of fabulous landscapes.
It is only when Moonfish returns to his own pond and the ones he loves that he discovers who he really is. When the foraging cranes attack the pond, it is Moonfish's alter ego--a ravaging dragon--that drives the predators away for good. Yet again, Base has created a visual feast of mythical creatures and fantastical landscapes that take the reader on a spectacular magical, mystery tour.
A monstrous creature is also at the heart of Nicki Greenberg's deliciously funny Miss Kraken (Allen & Unwin. $24.99). When Miss Kraken takes over the class, her students know it's going to be a bad year. For a start, the new teacher is enormous, orange and has tentacles. She also has the longest list of classroom rules they've ever encountered. But these exuberant children are up for the challenge, especially when Miss Kraken takes them on a school excursion to the aquarium.
Greenberg uses colour to create contrast and dramatic effect. The children and their classroom are presented monochromatically--the better to highlight the stunningly different Miss Kraken. And, once the children are running riot in the aquarium, the backgrounds turn distinctly blue. The students' hijinks provide hilarious visual humour in this joyous romp of a book. They also make it very easy to understand why poor Miss Kraken goes AWOL. And there's a fabulous twist at the end that indicates that this cheeky, out-of-control class might finally have met their match!
Unlike Miss Kraken, Mr Chicken just wants to travel the world and make friends. But is this oversized chicken carcass being too ambitious in Mr Chicken All Over Australia (Allen & Unwin. $24.99), as he tries to criss-cross every part of this vast country? Luckily, Mr Chicken is up to the challenge--although there are a few hiccups along the way, as he attempts to visit many of the wonderful places author-illustrator Leigh Hobbs encountered during his tenure as Australian Children's Laureate.
Not surprisingly, Mr Chicken is particularly interested in the enormous sculptures scattered around the country, like the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour and the Big Prawn in Ballina. Guided by his marsupial friend, Mr Chicken also visits prime tourist attractions such as the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, Bondi Beach, the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge--where he discovers he's afraid of heights! He encounters 'traditional' Australian food like lamingtons and pavlovas--again with disastrous consequences! And, along the way, this well-travelled tourist pops into towns with delightfully different names like Poowong, Wonglepong and Grong Grong. And, of course, he leaves behind a big statue of his very own. This is vintage Mr Chicken - silly, enthusiastic, informative and highly entertaining.
Another former Children's Laureate, Alison Lester, favours domesticated animals in her books. A bevy of her endearing sausage-shaped horses bounce and prance across the pages of her latest book, The Painted Ponies (Allen & Unwin. $24.99). When Matilda visits Grandma Lucky, she plays with a set of wooden painted ponies--"the gold palomino, the chestnut, the bay/ the pinto, the brown and the dappley grey". She's fascinated when Grandma tells her about the real ponies they are based on, which performed in their family's travelling show. But this story is about more than Grandma's childhood memories, for the painted ponies were wild horses and they longed to be free. Lester uses vintage lettering and a subdued colour palette to evocatively capture the past--a time when travelling circuses, featuring trained animals, were a major form of entertainment for children living in country areas. This is a gentle, charming book with a poetic text and a haunting refrain.
Farm animals and rhyming text also feature in Leaping Lola (New Frontier. $24.99) by Tracey Hawkins and Anil Tortop. Lola is a cow with chutzpah who simply loves to dance. She flounces, bounces and frolics around the farmyard, despite the other cows' constant reminders that brown jersey cows weren't built to dance. Nothing can stop little Lola leaping, until she realises that the ball she wants to attend is only for black-and-white cows. Luckily, Lola's friend Pearl has a plan, and Lola does go to the ball--albeit in disguise and with a few mishaps along the way! This exuberant book, with its expressive cartoon-style illustrations and rollicking read-aloud text, celebrates difference, determination and the joys of dance.
Tania McCartney's Fauna: Australia's Most Curious Creatures (NLA Publishing. $29.99) has a unique and striking cover. On a black background, decorative green foliage fans out, revealing glimpses of the eyes, tails, snouts and feet of numerous interesting creatures. McCartney has uncovered a cornucopia of interesting, entertaining, amazing, amusing and sometimes mind-blowing facts about the unusual, curious and downright strange creatures that inhabit the continent of Australia. Her strong design aesthetic permeates this book, and the graphic design elements are particularly effective on the double-page spreads featuring just one creature. As well as providing scientific information about each of the 14 animals featured, McCartney indicates diagrammatically where in Australia they live, their conservation status and relative body size. She also provides the collective nouns for each one, including a "bask" of crocodiles, a "musket" of lyrebirds and a "lounge" of thorny devils.
Fauna also presents information about groupings of animals, including sea creatures, invertebrates, birds and marsupials. On each double-page spread, the blocks of text are packed full of information, the writing style accessible and entertaining, and the stylised images engaging and informative. At the back of the book, McCartney includes a sobering section on extinction, as well as an animal family tree. Another section showcases images from the collections of the National Library, recording the initial responses of early European settlers to Australia's curious creatures. A glossary and comprehensive index, organised both alphabetically and by animal group, round out this impressive book that will captivate, educate and entertain child and adult readers alike.
- Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder is a Canberra author, whose latest books include Story Time Stars and Trouble in the Surf.