Despite the pandemic, a plethora of Christmas-themed books are now available for popping into stockings or under the tree. This year, many favourite children's book characters appear in their own Christmas stories, from the Very Hungry Caterpillar to Spot, Peppa Pig, Slinky Malinki and even Pig the Pug - cleverly disguised as an elf. However, there's also a wide selection of high-quality picture books that make perfect presents to enjoy all year round.
With its bright colours, strong design elements, interactive text and thick pages, We Love You, Magoo (Puffin.32 pp. $19.99) by Briony Stewart is a must-have for the very young. As this book shows, it's not easy training a puppy - hence the refrain, "No, Magoo. This is for you" - and Magoo must learn what is and isn't acceptable doggy behaviour. This includes the important lesson that the blue water in the loo is definitely taboo.
Stewart creates maximum visual impact with textured backgrounds, thick black outlining and solid blocks of colour in a simple palette of oranges, yellows and blues. Highly emotive facial expressions and body language perfectly convey the range of emotions of this exuberant puppy as he learns how to be a good dog. And a suitably warm and loving ending wraps up this charming, interactive picture book.
For preschoolers and those in the early years of school, Bear in Space (Walker Books. 32 pp. $25.00) by Deborah Abela and Marjorie Crosby-Fairall is an endearing book about embracing difference. With his single-minded obsession with everything to do with space and his obvious discomfort in the hurly-burly world of the classroom, Bear finds it hard to fit in.
The other bears laugh at his determination to build a rocket, but Bear is nothing if not single-minded, and he duly blasts off into space - a place where there is no sensory overload for a sensitive bear. It's only when his supplies run low that Bear starts to worry. Luckily, he encounters another adventurer and finds not only peace but also friendship and, ultimately, acceptance.
Abela's empathetic text is extended by Crosby-Fairall's detailed illustrations. She sympathetically captures the essence of childhood and the complex interactions of the classroom. Simple accoutrements like hats and musical instruments indicate the other bears' personalities, and the titles of the books that feature in many of the illustrations often "comment" on the action.
These vibrant illustrations combine a mixture of realistically portrayed anthropomorphised creatures and childlike drawings, while interesting facts about space are presented on gridded exercise-book pages "sticky-taped" to the images. All in all, Bear in Space is a joyous book that celebrates difference and champions understanding.
The exquisitely illustrated Ghostbear (Scholastic. 32 pp. $24.99), with its poetic text and haunting images, is aimed at a slightly older audience. This sumptuous picture book tells the story of an abandoned young bear who lives in the Arctic wastelands that are slowly melting into nothingness. Ghostbear pads slowly through the stark landscape until he comes to land's end. There, he hitches a ride on a melting icefloe and meets up with a ghostly owl with vivid blue, sky-map eyes.
As Ghostbear follows Owl up into the sky, he is overcome by memories of the world he has lost - the eerie green glow of the Northern Lights, the dark blue of the abundant sea, the warmth of his mother's love. As he ascends higher into the firmament, Ghostbear encounters a host of other "lost and lovely" creatures who, like him, are now brightly shining stars.
Usually associated with comedic and musical performances, Paul McDermott shows that he is also a lyrical storyteller and a talented artist. His luminous oil paintings are compelling and appealing. From the stunning black-and-white front cover, to the monochromatic endpapers in icy blue, to the colourful flowers sprouting from Ghostbear's footprint in the snow on the back cover, this is a beautifully designed book. Ghostbear is a heartfelt ode to the fast-disappearing creatures that inhabit this planet.
Graeme Base's The Tree (Penguin. 32 pp. $24.99) also has a strong message about treasuring and sharing the world we inhabit. Base - the modern-day Aesop of Australian picture book creators - often produces animal-based fables with a strong message. In The Tree, his atmospheric and evocative illustrations range from simple portraits of the main characters on white backgrounds to complex moody landscapes and detailed close-ups of life in the tree. Fittingly, the palette in this book is predominately green, from acid-greens on the cover, to olive greens on the emblematic endpapers and camouflage greens inside the book.
The storyline is simple but prophetic. A cow and a duck fall in love with the same gigantic tree. Cow builds an elaborate castle among the spreading branches, which sprout abundant crops of "mooberries". Duck digs deep underground to make himself a secret hideout among the roots, where crops of fungal "mushquacks" flourish.
When a wild storm hits the tree, Duck and Cow discover one another's existence. They are both convinced that the other creature is after their food supplies, but unfortunately their selfish actions to protect their hordes undermine the tree and, with the next storm, it topples over, leaving both animals homeless. Luckily, with the effluxion of time, a new tree grows and the two animals learn to coexist, sharing the abundance that nature bestows. True to form, Base has created a thoughtful tale about learning from our mistakes.
Anna Walker also consistently produces creative and emotive picture books that deal with difficult themes in an accessible way. In Hello Jimmy! (Penguin. 40 pp. $24.99), Jack and his Dad are adjusting to a recent family break-up. When Jack visits his Dad's new home, it's obvious that they are both stressed out, grieving and unsure about how to interact with one another. The state of their emotions is visually represented by a neglected pot plant beside the kitchen window.
Then one day when Jack visits, his Dad has a surprise for him. Jack doesn't like surprises, and he is definitely not enamoured with Jimmy, a cheeky stray bird that seems to have usurped his place in his Dad's affections. The raucous bright green parrot makes Dad smile again, and even the pot plant by the window is starting to thrive.
Walker brings this poignant story to a climax in two double-page spreads. In the first, a bevy of parrots of every hue stare balefully at Jack as he lies in his bed at night. Overwhelmed, Jack opens the window to let the "dream" parrots fly away, and Jimmy escapes. In the morning, a guilt-stricken Jack sets out alone in the rain in search of the elusive parrot. When Dad finally finds his distraught son, he makes it clear that it is not Jimmy but Jack that he has been searching for.
Walker's sensitive illustrations, in soft watercolours in shades of greys and blues, counterpointed by the parrot's brilliant green plumage, are full of endearing domestic details that ground the story in real life, including the pot plant that, like Jack and his Dad's relationship, is blooming by the end of this heart-warming and tender tale. This is a perfect book to read at Christmas time, when family is foremost - or at any time of the year.
- Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder is a Canberra author whose latest picture book is 'Australia's Wild Weird Wonderful Weather' (NLA Publishing), illustrated by Tania McCartney.