All crea­tures, great and smelly

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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