Oodles of charm in animal farm
Animals are a staple of children’s books, but even so I was a little surprised by their dominance of the titles the 10-year-old and I considered for this review, which covers releases from about June. Not unpleasantly surprised, I should add, as we love animal stories. We will start with the most sophisticated book here (so, yes, favourites such as Nick Bland and Aaron Blabey will have to wait), The Cat with the Coloured Tail (Walker Books, $19.99), by award-winning novelist Gillian Mears, illustrated by Dinalie Dabarera.
This oddly affecting chapter book, a feline fable, follows a day or so in the life of Mr Hooper, who runs an ice-cream van (though he calls them “moon creams”), and his cat, which has a heart-shaped face and a tail that changes colour in sympathy with the moods of the people he meets, and also in response to the state of the world. For a long and disconcerting section of the story his tail is black as black can be.
Mr Hooper and the cat have a favourite game: finding heart shapes — in leaves, clouds, ants’ nests — and a mission to make sad and lonely people happier and less lonely. This is a melancholy story at times, an effect enhanced by Dabarera’s gorgeous but muted pencil illustrations. It explores challenging concepts including death (reading it one cannot but think of the author’s own serious illness) and so is one for older readers, say 10 and up. But it’s a book we’ve talked about a lot. As Tim Winton puts it so well in a back-cover blurb, it is a “sweet and gentle reminder of the two great forces that lie dormant within us — kindness and hope”.
Similar sentiments run through Sad, the Dog (Walker Books, $24.95) by Sandy Fussell, illustrated by Tull Suwannakit. The story opens with a pinch-faced old couple, Mrs and Mrs Cripps, doing the least they can to look after a sweet little dog who was “an unwanted Christmas present from a friend’’. When the dog sings, he is ordered not to yap; when he draws, screamed at to stop digging; when he reads, yelled at to stop tearing the newspaper. “The little dog felt unhappy. And in his heart, he whispered a name. Sad.’’ By this point the reader feels the same — but kindness and hope are on the horizon. A lovely book. Danny Snell’s Seagull (Working Title Press, $24.99) also starts with misfortune: Seagull, who just loves to fly, lands on a sand dune and becomes entangled in an old fishing line with a lead sinker still attached. Her struggles to loosen the line only see her further ensnared, and various animals she asks for help — a mullet, pelican, crab — are unable to free her. This is a job for opposable thumbs, and the kindness of a boy. Another beautiful story, one that led to us having a good talk about the importance of keeping our beaches and seas free of junk.
It’s not junk but junk food (to a carnivorous fish) that causes problems in Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas (Scholastic, $16.99), by the prolific Blabey. This madcap story stars a piranha named Brian who tries to tempt his buddies into eating fruits and vegetables. Every time he suggests a vegetarian option, the other piranhas come up with meatier alternatives, and ones that rhyme at that: silverbeet/feet, peas/knees. No prizes for guessing what they prefer to plums. While on an aquatic theme, Sean E. Avery’s Harold and Grace (Fremantle Press, $24.99) is a wonderful allegory that explores the challenges of change and the resilience of friendship. Although it’s a picture book, awkward adolescents might appreciate its message.
When a storm blows some egg-clustered leaves into a pond, there are just two survivors: a silky egg hatches to reveal Grace the caterpillar and a slimy egg hatches to reveal Harold the tadpole. Both look different to all the other animals in and around the pond and are teased for it. Sad and lonely, Harold and Grace find refuge in a special friendship. But of course tadpoles and caterpillars experience remarkable changes, ones that will test their bond to its limits. The final pages, when a grown-up tadpole does what you might expect him to do to a grown-up caterpillar, are funny and moving.
While all the books reviewed here are best read aloud, Pip and Pim (Scholastic, $15.99) demands it. It may be just us, but there’s something about exclaiming “Pip!” and “Pim!” (we alternated in the reading) on almost every page that tickles our funny bones. Written by indigenous author Ruth Hegarty and illustrated by Sandi Harrold, it is about two baby ringtail possums who leave the safety of their tree home for their first nocturnal adventure. “Slowly,’’ mother possum advises. “You have a lot to learn on your first night of exploring.’’ Father possum adds: “Have fun. But always remember to look and listen for signs of danger. And don’t go too far!” As if the kids are going to listen to that! By the end of the night, though, Pip and Pim realise their parents still know a thing or two.
Jackie French’s gorgeous and educational Horace the Baker’s Horse (National Museum of Australia Press, $24,95) is another we took pleasure in the sound of, mainly via our various pronunciations of the unfamiliar name Horace. Sumptuously illustrated by Peter Bray, this book recalls a time and event that will seem fantastical to young readers: Australia, 1919, and the Spanish flu epidemic. The story starts in artisanal contentment: a family of bakers making the daily bread and doing the deliveries with their mighty cart horse Horace. There’s a nice town scene in which various providores make their rounds by horse and cart. Rugby leaguemade Syd was fascinated to learn why the South Sydney Rabbitohs are so called. But when Old William the baker falls ill with influenza, along with Big Bill the cart driver and other townsfolk, it is up to the youngest of the family, Young Bill, and Horace to make sure the life-preserving bread is made and delivered. Like all good books, this one had us remembering other stories and characters, such as poor Boxer in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. We also read up on the Spanish flu epidemic, and both learned a lot. Our favourite of all the terrific books reviewed here, in a rare unanimous decision.
Corrine Fenton’s Bob the Railway Dog (Black Dog Books, $24.95) is another fine historical story, illustrated by Andrew McLean in charcoal, black pencil and soft watercolours. Based on a true story, it’s set in South Australia in 1884. When a freight train pulls up at Carrieton Station, one of the cars is crammed with “a motley lot of homeless dogs that had come up from Adelaide ... bound to be rabbit hunters in outback South Australia’’. The train guard catches the eye of one dog and “something tumbled in the man’s heart’’. He keeps the dog, names him Bob and they ride the rails together. While guard Will has to remain in SA, Bob ranges further on solo adventures: “Everyone knew Bob the railway dog. Wherever there were train tracks, or tracks being laid, Bob was there.’’ An epilogue shows a photo of the real Bob that is on display at Adelaide Station. A delightful story that opens up conversations about the importance of the railways to a fast-developing nation.
Craig Smith’s exuberant Remarkably Rexy (Allen & Unwin, $24.99) is also based on a true story, in the sense that all cats are narcissists. Black and white and handsomely plump Rex “has been the most dazzling cat on Serengeti Street for years and years’’. Each day he waits to be admired by the schoolchildren on their walk home. One day, two things happen: a particularly gorgeous cat, Pamela, appears and works her charms on the kids, and a deranged dog, Towser, escapes his yard. The moment when Rex and the slobbering Towser come face to face is hilarious. The upshot of all of this excitement leaves Rex looking more like Les Patterson than Richard Gere and he starts to think about his life priorities.
Bland’s The Very Noisy Bear (Scholastic, $16.99) is another cheerfully loud book that starts with a very sleepy bear being woken by a band rehearsing in the jungle. Lion is on the drums, Zebra on the guitar, Moose on the trumpet and Sheep (a jungle sheep, obviously) on the violin. Bear, persuaded to join the fun, tries these instruments one by one, with less than musical results. But then clever Sheep has a bright idea, one that reminds us that everyone is good at something. The pachyderm in Have You Seen Elephant? (Gecko Press, $15.99), by English author David Barrow, is good at hiding. When a boy suggests a game of hide and seek, Elephant agrees but adds, “I must warn you though. I’m VERY good.’’ And so it proves to be on page after page. We can see him, of course, we’re not fooled by that lampshade on his head — but this doesn’t help our young protagonist.
I Want Spaghetti! (Gecko Press, $15.99), by American writer Stephanie Blake, is the latest adventure of the brattish rabbit introduced in the 2011 bestseller Poo Bum. This time Simon is resisting all attempts by his preternaturally tolerant parents to eat his breakfast, lunch or dinner because everything they offer is “DISGUSTING” and “ALL I WANT IS SPAGHETTI!” He’s a very shouty little rabbit.
To finish with a couple of board books for the real littlies, for whom the mark of a good book is its chewability. Both are from Gecko Press and cost $16.99. SHHH! I’m Sleeping, by French illustrator Dorothee de Monfried, comes in a rectangular shape, taller than it is wide, ideal for inexpert hands. Guiding the corners to the gums should present few problems. This shape also suits the charming story, which unfolds in side-by-side four-deck bunk beds in which eight dogs — Nono, Zaza, Kipp, Misha, Pedro, Jane, Popov and Omar — are settling down for the night. Or not settling down: after Popov wakes up everyone with his singing, there’s a lot of restless bunk climbing and bed hopping, and if you think you know how the eight mutts are going to end up, you probably are right. Help! The Wolf is Coming, by French-Belgian team Cedric Ramadier and Vincent Bourgeau, requires a bit more dexterity as the reader is asked to move the book — tilt it right, left and upside down — to throw off the fast-approaching wolf by sending him tumbling and falling and teetering on the edge of a cliff. But of course he is a wolf, so he’s not easily discouraged and the final exhortation to young readers is very clever, making this a book that insists on being re-read.