Book reviews: Childrens books with Stephanie Reeder

The best picture books for children not only entertain and educate, they also have an element of delight -that indefinable something that leads to the all-too-familiar cry, “Read it again!”
Nanjing Night Net

Who knew that fibbing could be fun? Arthur certainly makes it so in The Truth According to Arthur (Bloomsbury. 32 pp. $14.99) by Tim Hopgood. When Arthur has an accident on his big brother’s bicycle, and damages both the bike and his mother’s car, he and the truth part company as he tries to explain what happened. He bends, stretches, covers up and ignores the truth in the most imaginative ways, including blaming a supercool princess, an alien and a giant robot. However, when it comes to telling his mother what actually happened, Arthur decides to admit culpability and apologise.

In David Tazzyman’s loose-lined cartoon-style illustrations, the much-abused truth is depicted as an expressive and malleable long, grey blob with stick legs. The illustrations feature bright colours, visual humour and engaging characters. This is a highly entertaining book with a strong message about the importance of making friends with the truth.

The truth also gets a good stretching in Grandpa’s Big Adventure (Penguin. 32 pp. $19.99) by Paul Newman. The narrator, a small boy, is afraid of the water, and to allay his fears his grandfather, who is taking him to swimming lessons, tells him a gloriously tall tale about what happened when he swam all the way around the world. According to Grandpa, he had many interesting interactions with sea creatures of all kinds, including sharks and whales, while managing to still watch his favourite quiz shows on TV.

The humorous counter-play between Newman’s text and Tom Jellett’s illustrations explores every nuance of word play, exaggeration, whimsy and just plain exaggeration in Grandpa’s story. This extended grandpa joke is sure to entertain, but at its heart is a caring grandfather doing whatever he can to reassure his grandson.

There are also elements of overcoming fear of the unknown in Leila Rudge’s celebration of difference, Gary (Walker Books. 32 pp. $24.99). Gary is a racing pigeon who is just like all his friends, except that he can’t fly. When they head off on adventures, Gary stays at home on his perch, recording their journeys in his scrapbook. Then one day Gary and his book fall into the travel basket, and he finds himself far away from home.

Luckily, his scrapbook is full of useful information, and Gary is able to plot his way back, using public transport. When confronted by the enormity of the city, Gary uses his brains rather than his wings to fly. Rudge’s detailed, beautifully crafted illustrations feature the pinks, greys and greens of pigeon feathers. Gently instructive, Gary is an example of a creative picture book with a perfect balance of imagination, inspiration and humour.

There is also humour and imagination aplenty in Leigh Hodgkinson’s Are You Sitting Comfortably? (Bloomsbury. 32 pp. $25.99). A small boy is trying to find the perfect place to read his book. He wants a spot that is not too noisy and not too smelly, not too hot and not too cold, and definitely not too crowded. He finds all sorts of spots, in all sorts of chairs, with all sorts of creatures. Finally, he realises that you can read a good book anywhere, and that it is even more special when shared.

Leigh Hodgkinson is a master of design. Her collage-style, highly patterned illustrations feature an interesting range of designer chairs, all of which reflect the environment in which the boy is reading. Her images are imaginative and inviting, the characters that join the small boy in the reading experience are engaging, and her rhyming text is cleverly constructed, with interesting phrasing. This intriguing book celebrates the joys of reading, no matter where you are.

The desire for a place to call your own is also explored in Blue, the Builder’s Dog (Penguin. 32 pp. $24.99) by Jen Storer. Blue is an important member of the building team, travelling to work every day in the back of the ute, and helping to keep everyone on track on the building site. But when Blue goes home each night, he has to sleep in the shed. Blue yearns for a purpose-built kennel of his own, and so he decides to stay at home and build one. It’s a delightfully ramshackle affair, but it obviously doesn’t meet building regulations. And so, when a storm hits, everything falls apart. But Blue’s building mates come to the rescue, and he finally gets the kennel he deserves.

Storer’s well-constructed text provides a perfect foundation for Andrew Joyner’s imaginative cartoon-style illustrations. Joyner’s images are chock full of details and visual humour, and his building site is a celebration of modern, multicultural Australia. Blue himself is a dog with attitude, an engaging character with whom children can identify. This is true blue, well-crafted entertainment.

Oh, Albert! (Penguin. 32 pp. $24.99) by Davina Bell also deals with the ups and downs of dog ownership. Albert is an enthusiastic but troublesome pooch with a penchant for eating everything and anything. In the course of one week this includes ribbons, goggles and a bike helmet. But Albert meets his match when he eats the whole world, in the form of a globe-shaped chocolate birthday cake. Unfortunately, poor Albert ends up at the vet’s. While they are in the waiting room, Albert’s family realise just how much they love their cheeky but voracious pet.

There is a warm family feel to this book, as each family member deals in their own way with Albert’s destructive tendencies. Sara Acton’s minimalist watercolour illustrations create endearing characters and a gentle picture of normal family life, in which there are inevitably moments of both frustration and delight.

Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder is a Canberra author, illustrator and editor, whose latest book, Lennie the Legend (NLA Publishing), has been shortlisted in the CBCA Book of the Year Awards 2016.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.