All creatures, great and smelly
Du Iz Tak?, by American author and illustrator Carson Ellis, is not an account of Donald Trump’s first question to Vladimir Putin. And that’s the last political joke the 11-year-old and I will make in this festive wrap-up of our favourite picture books, covering ones published since September. Du Iz Tak? (Walker Books, $24.99) is a spellbinding tale about insect-like creatures building something on the forest floor. It’s perhaps best suited to slightly older readers because of the unusual language. Here’s the opening exchange, between two dandy flies. “Du iz tak?” says one, pointing to a green shoot. “Ma nazoot,” replies the other. A few pages on a beetle declares, “Ru daddin doodin unk furt!” There’s a mean-looking spider, who learns a lesson about the savage indifference of nature. Syd and I turned every gorgeous page wondering if the language would be explained or if English would creep in. The ending is superb.
Language is also a factor in Leigh Hobbs’s Mr Chicken arriva a Roma (Allen & Unwin, $24.99), especially for we Romei boys. The gargantuan, sharp-fanged Mr Chicken takes his annual holiday to a place he’s long dreamed of, “Ancient Rome”. He brushes up on his Italian, jumps on a flight, lands in the capital, bestrides a Vespa and screeches around historical sites. His experiences with gelati and the Trevi Fountain suggest it’s summer. But the important question is one that can be asked any season: what sort of pasta to eat? We applaud his choice.
A far friendlier fowl is the heroine of Nick Bland’s The Fabulous Friend Machine (Scholastic, $24.99), a useful book to share with screen-obsessed youngsters. Popcorn, a black hen we first meet swishing a pink featherduster, is “the friendliest chicken on Fiddlesticks Farm”. She’s pals with the pigs, chats to the cows and even bandies about with the bulldog. One day she finds a mobile phone in the barn. Her life changes, for the better, as “this fabulous friend machine” keeps sending her nice texts, to which she replies. But as we know, instant communication can be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. Well, paws in this case.
Of course, chickens have their own predatory instincts, so let’s keep close to the ground and sympathise with the protagonist of
(Phaidon, $29.95), by Canadian authorillustrator Mathieu Lavoie. Toto is a worm who looks a bit like a pink sock. Craning his neck (or the vermicular equivalent), he spies a delicious red apple in a tree. “The apple is up high. Toto is down low.” He needs help. Larger animals perhaps? Or flying ones? This is a lovely story, with a strange but satisfying conclusion.
I could crack a joke about worms and the gastrointestinal tract but I’m not 11 so I won’t. I’ll leave it to Tim Miller and Matt Stanton and their latest book about a boy and his green friend, There is a Monster on my Holiday Who Farts (ABC Books, $24.99). This time the boy and his family are going on a “trip around the world”, accompanied, almost needless to say, by the flatulent one. This leads to a lot of tight situations, all hilariously illustrated: a sumo wrestler wondering who ate the “teppan-yucky”, a Buckingham Palace guard losing his composure, the Mona Lisa screaming, Edvard Munch-like. And it’s fortunate for Mr Chicken that he made it to Pisa before this lot did.
While we are on boys with control issues, let’s include Rollo from David Cornish’s I Don’t Want to Go to Bed (Angus & Robertson, $24.99). As the title suggests, Rollo will do anything to avoid bedtime. He wants a story, he’s hungry, he’s thirsty (terrific illustration of his cactus-infested tongue), he needs the toilet. Read this one and then turn to Andy Lee’s Do Not Open This Book (Lake Press, $19.95), illustrated by Heath McKenzie. If nothing else, the long-legged, big-headed, harsh-browed blue man (I think) we meet at the start will make the likes of Rollo think twice about being dis- obedient. “Oh! You opened the book,” he says. “I assume that was an accident? No problem, accidents happen. I’m not even angry.” But, he continues, please don’t turn the page. You will of course, and you will push Mr Blue or whatever his name is through a spectrum of emotions. It’s a lot of fun.
And some books cannot remain closed, as actress Justine Clarke shows in her new one, The Gobbledygook and the Scribbledynoodle (Penguin, $19.99), illustrated with colourful zaniness by Tom Jellett. Clarke’s Gobbledygook ate books in his first incarnation. This time he imbibes only the words — “He hasn’t gobbled a book in ages” — especially from his favourite “mon-story books”. He’s absorbed in one when a monster jumps out of its pages. Green with long arms and bulging eyes, it’s a Scribbledynoodle. It likes to scribble and scrawl all over library books, and walls for that matter, and faces, which the reformed Gobbledygook knows is not right. “And here’s where the story really begins …”
Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, famous for The Gruffalo, are back with Zog and the Flying Doctors (Scholastic, $24.99). This is a sumptuous illustrated book with a detailed story. The airborne medicos are Gadabout the Great, a knight and surgeon, and Princess Pearl, who is more of a pills provider. Their gravity-defying rounds are due to Zog, a cheerful dragon who is “good at flying though not quite so good at landing”. They treat a sunburned mermaid (who has well-placed tresses), a dehorned unicorn and a sneezing lion. But their medical ex- pertise is challenged when they visit Pearl’s uncle, who is a king. For starters, he tells her, “Princesses can’t be doctors, silly girl.” Then he falls ill, and the challenges increase, even for Zog.
I suppose it’s time we mention Christmas, but let’s be naughty not nice and start with Nicki Greenberg’s The Naughtiest Reindeer Goes South (A&U, $15.99). This latest instalment of the clever and droll Naughty Reindeer series sees the titular villainess, Rudolph’s sister Ruby, demanding she lead Santa’s sleigh. “It’s my turn this year!” Rudolph answers with a ripping rhyme, “Not a chance. Step down, little deer.” But Mrs Claus decides both can lead the sleigh. She warns Ruby to behave. “And did Ruby behave? That depends what you mean. She behaved … like a renegade flying machine.” Ruby takes a shortcut — in the wrong direction. Sharks become involved. Who knew they liked the taste of deer? This could be a tricky Christmas. As it could be in Aaron Blabey’s Pig the Elf (Scholastic, $16.99), which sees the return of another character: Pig the overexcited, avaricious pug. He leaps on to the page bursting out of a red Santa suit. “The presents! The presents! For ME! ME! ME! ME!” He’s written an exhaustive gift list: motorbike, rocket, fairy floss maker and much more. Santa arrives. Pig wakes up and sees him, and the presents he’s left. The result is a telling reminder — particularly to readers in my house where a staffordshire terrier has taken residence — never to take your eye off that jaw. Syd and I also loved the fourth book in Blabey’s chapter book series The Bad Guys (Scholastic, $12.99). As the subtitle Apocalypse Meow suggests, this latest adventure of wannabe good guys Wolf, Shark, Piranha, Snake and Spider involves zombie kittens. It’s the funniest one yet.
Now for the dog books. As companions to a more or less dingo, we were absorbed by Sally Morgan’s Dingo in the Dark (Omnibus, $19.99), finely illustrated by Tania Erzinger. The dingo here is afraid of the dark. He howls at the moon all night and sleeps during the day, which means he has no friends and is lonely. This is a simple, beautiful book that reminds us we can find help in unexpected places. Jen Storer’s Blue, the Builder’s Dog (Penguin, $24.99), illustrated by Andrew Joyner, centres on a red-coated building site dog. Axiomatically his name is Blue. He’s such a hard worker, inspecting the bricklaying, warding off “Stickybeaks” (cats), ignoring the site boss, that he’s “mates with the whole team”. There is one construction he does not have, however: his own kennel. Well, that’s an aim that will need dogged work, and mates. There’s another working dog in the evocative Dog on a Digger: The Tricky Incident (Old Barn Books, $20.99), by English author Kate Prendergast. The alert white dog here is helping his scoop-driving owner clear a building site. The drawings are mainly lush black and white, with the occasional dash of yellow. There are no words. Man and dog are hard at work when the woman who runs the nearby snack bar comes to them for help. Her fluffy little dog has gone missing. What happens next is high stakes, and just may lead to love.
Love is at the heart of Ida, Always (Koala Books, $35.99), by American author Caron Levis and Australian illustrator Charles Santoso. This moving book is based on two polar bears, Ida and Gus, who lived in New York’s Central Park Zoo. They sleep in separate caves but are otherwise inseparable. “Wherever I go,” Ida says, “I bet I’ll always smell your fishy breath.” That’s a bonus in the ursine universe. Then Ida falls ill. What happens is sad but ultimately uplifting. This is one best for slightly older children. So is the intricate Pandora (Frances Lincoln, $24.99), by English author Victoria Turnbull. Pandora is a young fox who lives alone “in a land of broken things”. The illustrations suggest an end-of-modern-world scrapheap. Pandora makes herself a handsome home “from all that people had left behind”. No one ever visits, until one day “something fell from the sky”. It is broken too, and Pandora doesn't know how to fix it. But even in this world, there are times when good happens.
Let’s finish with one that is right for readers of all ages, The Hamster Book (minibombo, $17.99), by Italian illustrator Silvia Borando. This little book opens with a sleeping hamster who we need to wake up. When she does she’s all ruffly, so we must smooth down her fur. Then there are games and tricks as we are guided page by page. We like the illustrations of her after she’s scoffed sunflower seeds. Eventually the seeds are swallowed and, well, she’s a hamster so no prizes for guessing in what form we see them next.