Saturday, January 26, 2013

10 Exciting New Books for Independent Readers

In my last post I reviewed 12 new picture books (HERE) that I wanted to commend. In this post I review new books for more independent readers aged 8 to 12 years.

'Chook Chook: Mei's Secret Pets' by Wai Chim (University of Queensland Press, 2012)

This is a lovely novel for younger readers that tells the story of Mei, a Chinese girl whose father has died. She now lives with her mother and brother. One day she finds two small chickens and tells no-one except her brother. As the chickens grow older it becomes more difficult to maintain the deception and eventually the inevitable happens. Her mother finds the chooks (Australian for chickens!) and eventually they are sold to a frightening man at the markets. Mei is convinced she will never see her chickens again. But she discovers that they are still alive and available for sale, so she sets out to earn enough money to buy them back. A surprising twist at the end leads to an equally surprising resolution.

The author, Wai Chim drew her inspiration from a traditional Cantonese nursery rhyme and the rich memories and stories of her parents growing up in Hong Kong and mainland China, Wai Chim. It is a wonderful story with warmth and joy that takes the reader into the daily lives of a Chinese village, a small family, and the characters and life of a Chinese marketplace. Children aged 6-9 will enjoy reading this excellent novel from a first time author.

'Diary of a Rugby Champ' and 'Diary of a Taekwondo Master' by Shamini Flint & illustrated by Sally Heinrich (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

Children aged 6 to 9 years might already have discovered Shamini Flint's very funny series of diary books. Each is based on the life experiences of Marcus who, while a whiz at maths, is not so great at sport which others (mainly his Dad) seem to think is important. The titles in this series of 100 page illustrated books are easy to read for most newly independent readers, and children seem to find them to be very funny. This new title begins as follows:

Okay - I get it.
I really do.
I'm not a complete idiot.
Sport is dangerous.
Rugby is the latest sport that Dad feels will help to make Marcus the complete kid. As in each of the diaries, Marcus quickly assesses the game and sees at once the problem for him:
Anyway, Dad's lost it. He wants me to play rugby.
Rugby is different to soccer and cricket.
In soccer and cricket, you get hurt by accident.
In rugby, they hurt you on purpose!
On purpose!!
Sally Heinrich's multiple line drawings that feature on every page add to the fun and make the books even more readable. Boys who are reluctant readers will love these books.

You can also read the attempts by Marcus to succeed (or is that survive?) soccer, cricket and taekwondo. All four books in the series are priced at $AUD 9.99

3. 'LOLs Best Jokes for Kids', by June Factor and illustrated by Mic Looby (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

Joke books are a great addition to any collection of books. Children of all ages will pick up a good joke book and read it. And what's just as good, they will involve others in their reading, 'Hey, listen to this one'... This is 110 page book is an excellent collection of Australian jokes brought to us by June Factor, who is an academic and writer who will be known perhaps best for her wonderful series of books she wrote in the late 1970s until the early 1990s based on children's playground rhymes and chants (HERE). Titles like 'Far Out, Brussel Sprout!', 'Unreal, Banana Peel!', 'Out of Sight, Vegemite!' and 'Roll Over, Pavlova' entertained children and adults alike (and still do). This book is just as funny and an entertaining addition to her previous work. Mic Looby's wonderful line drawings also add to the fun and readability of the book. Suitable for children aged 6-10. Boys and girls will love it. It's also available in a Kindle edition (here).

4. 'Kizzy Ann Stamps', by Jeri Watts (Candlewick Press, 2012)

Kizzy is a nine year old living in the 1960s who is about to start school an integrated school for white and African Americans. It is 1963, a year of monumental change in American life as the first key steps are taken to dismantle segregation. Kizzy is not keen to be at the integrated school, as she struggles to be in a place where many still don't want her. The story is told through her letters and journal entries written for her new teacher, who believes in integration and encourages Kizzy. It is a moving story that offers a child's perspective and experience of prejudice, intolerance and discrimination. A challenging book for readers aged 9-12.

5. 'Whirlwind: The Grimstones 3', by Asphyxia (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

This book is the third book in a series of gothic fairy tales that are the work of Australia’s premier Deaf artist, Asphyxia. Asphyxia established her internationally acclaimed performing arts company of the same name in 1999. She is a circus performer who branched out into puppetry and tours Australia presenting theatrical productions where she tells stories 'physically and with sign language'. Asphyxia is supported by a team of creative artists and arts administration professionals. The story is a delightful tale of friendship, family life and responsibility. This is a gothic fairy tale without sinister happenings, dark characters or scary events. It follows 'Hatched: The Grimstones 1' and 'Mortimer Revealed: The Grimstones 2'.

Martha Grimstone has inherited her father's gift for music and can play notes that will bring sunshine, breezes and rain, and send clouds scudding across the sky. But she can't yet turn back a storm. She believes that if she can convince Grandpa Grimstone that she can be trusted to leave the valley, that she might just be able to work this out.  She knows just where she needs to go, but after a disaster with some precious fabric she is in trouble.  Perhaps two angora rabbits that she has named Tillipilli and Ziphwort will help her. But how will she conquer the whirlwind? The 120 page story of Martha's latest adventure is presented in diary form with illustrations based on the puppets and miniature home that Asphyxia has created for her shows. Children aged 7-11 will enjoy this simple and wholesome fantasy. 

6. 'Slog's Dad' by David Almond & illustrated by David McKean (Walker Books, 2012)

This is an unusual book that isn't easily classified. It is a 60 page book that is graphic novel and conventional novel all in one. It deals with the pain of a boy who loses his dad after a terrible battle with disease, that ends with gangrenous parts of his body being progressively removed. First one leg, then another, then arms, then...death. It is a deeply metaphysical short work for readers aged nine to perhaps thirteen. The boy's dad has died, and the boy struggles with his death. We see this in the illustrations that parallel the text ,which could stand alone. In the illustrations we see boy dealing with loss. Slog misses his dad, and then one day, he seems to appear again. But is it his Dad, because he doesn't seem quite the same person?

Slog is convinced that the old scruffy man who sits outside the pork shop is his dad come back to visit him for one last time.  He had said that he'd do this just before he died. But could it really be him? Slog's mate Davie isn't convinced. This is a haunting and intriguing book that leaves the reader wondering, was this Slog's dad? Or is there a simpler explanation. A story of painful loss, a boy's efforts to deal with the horror and the emptiness this causes, and how he seeks to reconcile himself to the reality and finality of death.

7. 'The Adventures of Scarygirl', by Nathan Jurevicius (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

This book is a 200+ page graphic novel based on the cult character Scarygirl made famous by the online comic, game and collectable items of the same name. It is full colour and looks very much like the online world of Scarygirl, without the movement, sound and interactivity. The book has much less to offer the reader without an awareness and experience of the online world. With the online experience, the graphic novel is another entry into the world and adventures of this online character. It is suitable for children 8-12 years in age.

Scarygirl is abandoned on a remote beach and doesn't know who she is or where she's come from. No-one knows who she is and where she comes from. Blister, a kind of intelligent giant octopus, rescues her and tries to keep her safe. But Scarygirl has many dreams that contain scary visions. Who is the strange man haunting her dreams? Will Bunniguru help her unlock the mysteries of her past? Can she trust the wily forest dwellers? She has to leave the safety of Blister's protection and travel over the mountains to a distant city to discover the secrets of her past. Perhaps Dr Maybee's laboratory will offer some answers. Or will his dark forces be the end of her?

8. 'The Grunts in Trouble' by Philip Ardagh and illustrated by Axel Schaffler (Nosy Crow, 2012)

This is the fifth book written by Philip Ardagh about a rather unusual family, the Grunts. It follows 'The Grunts in Trouble', 'The Grunts all at Sea', 'The Grunts on the Run' and 'The Grunts in a Jam'.  Mr and Mrs Grunt are a disgusting and unsavoury couple that live with their son Sunny who they abducted when they saw him pegged on a clothes line.  If you loved Roald Dahl's outrageous exploits with the Twits, then you will enjoy the Grunts. Their 'adopted' son is an odd-looking boy, with his left ear higher than the other (probably from the clothes peg) and spiky hair which never goes flat. This weird and improbable family ends up in numerous equally improbable situations.

9. 'Fair Dinkum War' written and illustrated by David Cox (Allen & Unwin, 2013).

This is a picture book for older readers aged 7 to 12. It is a narrative recount that tells the story of a child and his family who move from a sheep station to the city to live during World War II. This simple narrative tells of the day-to-day challenges and experiences. He watches from the school grounds as American soldiers, tanks and equipment roll by, and he sees men dig zigzag trenches across the school playground for shelter from bombings. He speaks of the challenges of food coupons, blackout curtains, late night air raid sirens, collecting rubber and metal for the war effort, and also the daily experiences of deliveries by horse and cart.

David Cox is a Walkley Award winning illustrator who has had a long career in newspapers. His picture books delight readers of varied ages with their cartoon-like illustrations and descriptive text. This book is a companion to 'The Road to Goonong' (2011) that was named as a Notable Book in the CBCA awards in 2012.

10. 'I am Ivan Crocodile' by Rene Gouichoux and illustrated by Julia Neuhaus. English adaptation by Michael Sedunary from a French book (Berbay Publishing, 2012)

Ivan is a six year old who like many children finds he is not always understood at school. He's different alright, and feels it, but while he's loved at home and defended by his teacher, other children taunt him. The illustrator Julia Neuhaus uses a mix of drawn images and photographic collage to good effect. Real faces stare at Ivan as they jest and make fun of him.

As his fears and frustrations grow and Ivan creates an imaginary crocodile friend, and sees himself as a crocodile too. This is not a simple story about a child with an imaginary friend. Gouichoux invites the reader to consider difference, the way we see it, and how we treat those unlike ourselves. Children who see themselves as square pegs in round holes will relate to this book, as will their parents. With careful and sensitive treatment by primary school teachers significant discussions could be initiated about bullying and difference.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

12 Exciting New Picture Books for the New Year

I'm a little behind in my reviews of children's books so I thought I'd start the year with two bumper posts. This week I review 12 new picture books that children of varied ages will enjoy. I have grouped them into two age categories (0-5 and 6-12 years). Next week I will review new books for independent and older readers.

1. Books for young children (0-5 years)

'Ruby Learns to Swim' by Phillip Gwynne & illustrated by Tamsin Ainslie (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

This very simply book is one I'd call a mixed genre. It has the form of a recount and yet, it is poetic at the same time. It follows Ruby as she learns to swim.

Splash the water
SPLASH the water
Learn to swim!

Floaties on
Floaties ON
Learn to swim!

Tamsin Ainslie's delightful illustrations take you on Ruby's big adventure.  This will work with all preschool children, especially if they've experienced the joy and challenge of learning to swim.

'Farmer John's Tractor' by Sally Sutton & illustrated by Robyn Belton (Walker Books, 2012)

Sally Sutton's wonderful picture book will resonate with anyone who has been on a farm or knows a farmer. There is often a 'rusty yet trusty and orangey-red' tractor tucked away in the shed of many farms, just waiting to be released for action. The simplicity of the verse, the clarity of the story and pull of the plot - like the rising flood waters themselves - will engage listeners and readers. When the VW is stuck in the rising floodwaters, and the jeep, the tow truck and the fire engine all become stuck, there is need of a rescuer. I can't wait to read this book to some children. Robyn Belton's line drawing and watercolour illustrations help this story to come alive. A great read for any child aged 1 to 5.

'Run Like a Rabbit' and 'Growl Like a Tiger' by Alison Lester (Allen & Unwin, 2012).

Allen & Unwin has published two more board books for toddlers by the acclaimed author/illustrator Alison Lester.  As always, the illustrations are simple, arresting, amusing and support the text perfectly. As we've come to expect from Lester, the language of the texts have their typical preciseness, simplicity, economy and elegance. See if your child can 'Run like a rabbit'?

I can...
run like a rabbit
jump like a frog
laze like a lizard
stretched out on a log

If not, perhaps you can read them 'Growl Like a Tiger.'

I can rumble like a lion
if I'm tired and grumpy
or growl like a tiger
when I'm wide awake
and jumpy

Enjoy these delightful books with babies and toddlers. My youngest granddaughter (aged 18 months) loved them!

'Mouse Mansion: Sam & Julia' created and written by Karina Schaapman, with photographs by Ton Bouwer (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

This is a lovely picture book that tells the story of two mice, Sam and Julia, who are best friends. They live in Mouse Mansion, a wonderful place with many rooms, and families. Sam is shy and well behaved, while Julia is curious and at times stubborn and naughty. Julia lives on the sixth floor with her mother, her only family member. Sam lives in the middle of the house with his very large extended family. The creator of Mouse Mansion made up the stories of daily life as she constructed the amazing miniature house, its furnishings and its mice. The details are extraordinary and Ton Bouwer's photographs capture the intricate details in every room and scene. The images of the Mouse Mansion alone will keep young readers returning time and again to this book to paw over every detail and imagine life in this place.

The model of Mouse Mansion, the setting for the book

The text itself is simple and is in recount form with each double page telling of yet another adventure in the daily and seasonal happenings of the mansion. Sam and Julia play in their cubby under the stairs, help to take out things for the ragman, cook pancakes with Sam's grandma, play the violin in the music room, visit Sam's cousin Sophie for her birthday, help to hoist preserved food in the loft and so on. I can't wait to show this book to my grandchildren who I know will just love it. Children aged 2-7 years will enjoy this book.

'Heather Fell in the Water' by Doug McLeod & illustrated by Craig Smith (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

Doug MacLeod is a well-known Australian writer of comedy for adults and children. Many will remember his best-selling book 'Sister Madge's Book of Nuns' that children find very funny and read again and again. As the title suggests Heather manages to fall into water wherever she finds it; or does it find her! She ends up wet in the park, on a farm, in the art gallery and so on. Eventually, her parents make her wear 'water wings' (we everywhere she went. She learns to hate the water, but her parents manage to encourage her to learn to swim, with a surprising outcome.

I love Craig Smith's watercolour drawings; they will make any reader want to splash in the water like Heather. MacLeod's text has the simplicity of a good picture book and an ending that will amuse the young reader. A good read or read along for children aged 2 to 6 years.

2. More challenging picture books for older readers (6-12 years)

The following new books are picture books that will work at different levels for children aged 6-12 years. All are more challenging books that can be enjoyed by adults as well as children. For example  'The Selfish Giant' is a classic tale that has depths that only adults will plumb, and yet, it will be enjoyed by children in the primary years.

'The Selfish Giant' by Oscar Wilde & illustrated by Ritva Voutila (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

This story by the Irish wit, playwright, poet and novelist Oscar Wilde was first published in 1888 in his first collection of fairy tales. The story has been a favourite with many for over a century. This new production of the story in picture book form is magnificently illustrated by Finnish born Australian artist Ritva Voutila. Every double page features a stunning oil painting with incredible detail and characters that ooze personality and emotion. A fitting set of illustrations for a great literary work.
The Selfish Giant was written by Wilde as a moral tale that deals with the themes of love and redemption. Every afternoon as they leave school, a group of children play in the Giant's garden. The giant has left and the children treat it as their own. But after seven years the Giant returns to his home, which has been the children's paradise and banishes them. "What are you doing here?" he asks. But without the children the garden descends into an endless season of winter.

One day the giant hears a small linnet bird singing a sweet song outside his window, he sees it as the spring arriving and as he looks out he sees that the garden has burst into blossoms and that in every tree there is a small child.  All except one that is. Underneath this tree is one who weeps. The Giant takes pity on him and lifts him into the tree, and knocks down the walls allowing the children to once again take possession of the garden.  Years pass and the Giant grows old and feeble. One winter's day he looks out the window and sees a single tree surprisingly in bloom. Underneath it stands the same little boy he had lifted up into the tree years before. He runs into the garden and to his shock and horror sees that the boy has wounds caused by nails, on his hands and feet.

'Who hath dared to wound thee? cried the Giant; 'tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay them.'
'Nay!' answered the child; 'but these are the wounds of Love.'

The Giant asks 'Who art thou?' and he falls before the child in awe. And the child smiles at the Giant and says 'You let me play once in your garden; today you shall come with me to my garden, which is paradise.' That afternoon, the children find the Giant dead and covered in white blossoms.

Some reviewers find the Christian symbolism confronting in the story, but I would ask why, for children's stories are filled with symbolism, moral tales and even religious, philosophical and ideological comment of one form or another. Wild's story is brilliant, and should enjoy lasting use and popularity. The book is suitable for children aged 7-12 years.

'Can We Save the Tiger?' by Martin Jenkins & illustrated by Vicky White (Walker Books, 2011) 

This is a stunning book which was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2012. Conservationist Martin Jenkins and Vicky White celebrate some of the world's most endangered species in this book and show us why we must try to save them. Martin is a conservation biologist and consultant for the UN conservation organisation WCMC. Vicky White had experience as a zookeeper at the Cheshire Zoo caring for great apes. This is Vicky's second book; her first was 'Ape'.

The book has stunning images and a punchy text that confronts the reader. It begins with the matter of fact reminder that some of the animals and plants we have shared the planet with "...have coped with the changes very well. But some haven't. In fact, some have coped so badly that they're not here any more. They're extinct". Jenkins then introduces us to five species that are extinct, the Dodo, Steller's Sea Cow, the Tasmanian Tiger (Marsupial Wolf), Great Auk and Broad-faced Potoroo, before another challenge, "and then there are all those species that are still around, but only just." Like the tiger!

This is without a doubt one of the best conservation picture books that I've seen. White's illustrations are fine-grained pencil sketches, some in colour and some simply black and white, and are wonderful. They invite you to gaze and browse for the pictures alone. Children aged 5 to 12 will love the book. 

'Wild Child' by Jeannie Willis & illustrated by Lorna Freytag (Walker Books, 2012)

This is a visually stunning book thanks to Lorna Freytag's illustrations that blend photography and drawing to form glorious collage-like images. But the text is equal to the images, and while deceptively simple verse, it carries a strong message. In this picture book we meet the 'wild child' who is fearless and free. She is living a fairy-like existence in a mystical world of rugged landscapes.  She shares her world with her brothers 'Bug and bear. And badger, bat and fox and hare'. And her sisters, deer and mole, skylark, squirrel, vixen, vole. Is this the very last child, left in the wild?

Willis takes us through the wild child's day of freedom, curious exploration, and (as she expresses it) no rules or grown ups 'to catch me and ruin my fun'. This she contrasts at the end to our domesticated children who we wash and dress with sensible shoes to be sent off to school 'to do sums'. Her book asks, could there be a wild child left? Maybe 'It's you!'

Children aged 4 to 7 will enjoy hearing or reading this beautiful book that ends with a punch!

'Unforgotten' by Tohby Riddle (Allen & Unwin, 2012)

Tohby Riddle is an incredibly talented illustrator and author. His latest picture book is a masterful blend of verse and haunting photographic collage. He manipulates and merges multiple photographs, drawn images and clever design, to create a haunting and mystical story of an angel who rather than being the helper and guardian, ends up needing the help of others. Using images from various archives and his own drawings, Riddle pricks our imaginations to consider who are the guardians of the guardians.

'Nobody knows where they come from.
But they come.
Impossible birds
of the big sky
with faintest whispers
and silky rustlings
no car can hear.
They come.'

As always, there are many layers to Riddle's latest work that will take you back to the stories and the images again and again. A single reading will simply not be enough. Bravo Tohby!

'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore' by William Joyce & illustrated by Joe Bluhm (Atheneum Books, 2012)

Many of you will have met Morris Lessmore in eBook format on your iPad, or perhaps through the Academy award winning short film that inspired the book app version. But now we have the paper version. I hope dear readers that you appreciate the irony. An eBook that set the children's literature field abuzz with talk about the ground breaking potential of digital books, is now popular enough to sell as a paper book. I have reviewed the eBook on this blog before (HERE), but this time we have just the two dimensional images and words. No animation, no sound, no dramatic visual effects. Nothing to push and poke on screen. Does it still work? It certainly does, for now you concentrate far more on the text and the story. 'Morris Lessmore loved words. He loved stories. He loved books. His life was a book of his own writing, one orderly page after another. He would open it every morning and write of his joys and sorrows, of all that he knew and everything that he hoped for.'

Morris Lessmore is a solitary person who loves words and books. But his life is turned upside down (literally) by a storm of massive proportions - this was inspired in part by Hurricane Katrina.  Morris survives and is saved by books as he takes refuge in a library. But he finds that the books and their words give him so much more. He stays to look after the books, but is also looked after by them and their stories. Many years later as he ends the writing of his own story, his life ends and he is replaced by another who can find solace in all the books Morris had cared for. But now there is one more, the story of Morris that waits to be read.
Morris Lessmore is no less remarkable as a paper book than as an eBook. In fact, it is a reminder that in any reading there is movement, sound, animation and 3 dimensions. All of course, in the mind of the reader. In a strange way, the experience of the eBook and the video enriches the reading experience of the paper book, as memories of the past digital experiences of Morris Lessmore enriches the reading.

'Do Not Forget Australia' by Sally Murphy & illustrated by Sonia Kretschmar (Walker Books, 2012)

As an Australian this is a picture book that has special meaning. It tells the story of Villers-Bretonneux in France, and the role the Australian troops played in regaining the town on the 25th April 1918, just a day after it had been lost in the world's first tank battle between English and German forces. It tells the story through the eyes of two small boys, one from the French village, and the other, a son of one of the Australian troops in Villers-Bretonneux. It also tells of the fundraising after the war by Australian children that led to the rebuilding of the school in the French village.

But this is a story that is just as relevant for children of all nations for it says much about war and the sacrifice of men and women for the good of others, who are often strangers from different countries.  It also tells of the gratitude of the French people who swore at the end of the war that they would 'never forget Australia', and almost 100 years later they haven't. Today there is a memorial in this town to the 10,000 Australian soldiers who died on the Western Front, and every classroom in the school carries the sign 'Never Forget Australia'. It is a moving and powerful testimony to the bravery, service and sacrifice of many during war. Sally Murphy is a wonderful writer and Sonia Kretschmar's beautiful and 'earthy' slightly stylistic illustrations - in muted tones of grey, brown, green and yellow - are stunning. Great reading for individuals or for classes aged 6-10, especially at the time of memorial days in any country.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Conquering Fears: Literature as a means for discovery

One of the wonders of children is their innocence. But as they grow up there is an increasing realisation that the world isn't always as it seems. There are dangers, strangers and uncertainties.  Sometimes these are well-founded, while others are irrational or difficult to explain. All parents will have the need at some stage in a child's early life to address one or many fears that their children may have.

Teachers may also hear children expressing some of these fears and uncertainties about unknown, or partially understood things in their world. For the very young this can seem irrational and unjustified from the adult's viewpoint. But the darkness of a room, the strangeness of a new location, sounds in the night, the uncertainty of a parent's absence, and the stress of new teachers and friends, can all lead to unexpected responses from children. In some cases there are deeper fears not even expressed, and at times only partially identified by the child. While many children will express freely their feelings about such fears, some do not. Books can offer a means to expose some of these fears and allow parents and teachers to discuss them openly. In this post I will review some of the books that address the conquering of fears. I will do this by also considering some of the sub-themes that are evident in books of this type for children

1. Conquering unknown fears

Many books for very young children consider the fear that a child experiences when they cannot identify the nature of a threat. Often this type of threat is simply not knowing what lies within a place, or beyond a boundary to their known territory and world. But it can also relate to ideas and concepts beyond the limits of their current understanding. How children face up to these many fears, and the way they deal with them, helps to shape them as they grow up. What distinguishes this group of books is not just that they address fears, but that their key characters conquer them or move towards controlling them, learning from the experience and moving on.

For the very young child books like Jez Alborough's book 'Where's My Teddy' is a lovely example. Eddy cannot find his teddy (whose name is Freddy) and heads off alone to the forest to find him. He becomes lost in the forest that is "dark and horrible in there". "Help!" said Eddy. "I'm scared already! I want my bed! I want my Eddy!" And then a surprise. Something that is potentially dangerous to Eddy (a big bear) has some fears of his own. They face their fears together before retreating to the security of their own familiar surroundings.

Anthony Browne's picture book 'The Tunnel' (1989) is a little more complex and tells the story of a brother and sister. The sister is the 'inside type' who loves reading alone and 'dreaming'. Her older brother loves the rough and tumble of the outdoors. He teases and scares her for fun, but one day after he coaxes her into a tunnel she faces some new fears that she conquers with the help of her brother and in the process their relationship is strengthened.

'The Wolf', written by Margaret Barbalet and illustrated by Jane Tanner (1991) shows vividly how the effects of the fear of the unknown can be crippling. Tal hears sounds in the night that to him are the sounds of a wild wolf. The text of Barbalet and the illustrations of Tanner combine in a masterful way to leave the reader wondering whether this is the story of a real wolf or an imaginary one. Tanner's wonderful paintings show a family imprisoned by the fear of a wolf that comes closer and closer each night. However, finally Tal confronts his fear and the family is released from its grip on all of them (parents will relate to this as well).

Maurice Sendak’s Caldecott Honour book 'Outside Over There', is a strangely haunting story that at one level tells the story of a baby that is kidnapped by goblins from the care of her sister (Ida), while her father is at sea and her mother is in the Arbor. But at a deeper level Sendak addresses the psychological struggles of a child coping with the unwanted responsibility of looking after her baby sister and her failure to do it well. Some suggest that the story could also show one child's dreadful fantasy of what it might be like to be an orphan herself - to be left alone. There are parallels here with Sendak’s own life, as he is on the record saying that he identified with the baby. Some will ask, as always, is this a children’s book? Yes, but it has depth that would keep university English majors busy for weeks. Is the fear conquered in the story? I think so, as Ida rests in the knowledge that her father "loves her always".

A simpler and more straightforward fear is of the monster that lurks in the shadows of one's room at night. Probably every child faces this fear of the shape or shadow that in the dark seems so threatening, but with first light is strangely familiar. A classic example of this is Mercer Mayer's well-known book There's a Nightmare in my Closet. This is the story of a little boy who has fears for a 'nightmare' that lives in his closet. He shuts the door each night as he goes to sleep. One night he decides to conquer it by staying up and shooting it with his popgun. But when he meets his 'nightmare' he realises that the imaginary monster that is the nightmare is also frightened of the unknown.

The video clip below is a reading of the book by Billy Crystal.

2. Conquering known fears

a) Death 

The fear of death has overlaps with the above but it is so important that I've given it a sub-theme of its own. The most basic of fears is the fear of dying and death. I've written on the general theme of death before on this site (here). There are many books that deal with the experience of death including Hans Wilhelm's I'll always love you, John Burningham's Granpa, Robert Munsch's Love You Forever and Tomie de Paola's Nana Upstairs and Nan Downstairs.  

But here I want to draw a distinction between coping with death and actually 'conquering' it. Most of the above books deal with the experience of death and the message that death is an inevitable end to life. As well,  they suggest that for those who are left to grieve, ultimately life goes on when we lose loved ones. For those who have a faith that sees life beyond death, this will lead to a different treatment. For example, the Christian will teach their child about God's promise of eternal life for those who place their faith in God's son Jesus. When most writers deal with the subject they rarely seek any type of metaphysical solutions to the problem of death. But a few try something a little more ambitious.

Maurice Sendak does this in his mysterious picture book 'Dear Mili' which is based on a story by Wilhelm Grimm. This complex fairy tale (a challenge for adults let alone children) was rediscovered in 1983, and is designed to teach that life can be unpredictable and can have a darker side. It tells of a young widowed mother, who fears for her daughter when invaders come. She sends the child to hide in the forest for three days where the girl becomes lost, prays to God and eventually meets St Joseph who appears as a kind old hermit.

Three days later (thirty years earth time in the book), St Joseph sends the girl back to her mother, who longs to see her once more before she dies. Like many of Sendak’s works, this picture book can be viewed from multiple perspectives. There is a surface-level narrative that most children will follow, but there are other 'layers' to unearth. There is an exploration of death and dying with references to the life beyond this earth. Some literary critics also point to the echoes of the myth of Persephone and Demeter, while others point to the underlying interpretation of Sendak’s illustrations as a pointer to a message about the Jewish holocaust.

A simpler example of how a child copes and then learns from his experience of death is 'Harry & Hopper' written by Margaret Wild (illustrated by Freye Blackwood). Harry's dog Hopper is killed and he struggles to accept the loss. "Would you like to come and say goodbye to Hopper before I bury him?" asks his father. "No," said Harry, and he turned the TV up louder. Harry tries to hide from the truth of Hopper's death and doesn't tell his friends about him being killed. But Hopper comes back to visit Harry in his dreams and he has a chance to say goodbye. Now he is able to acknowledge that Hopper is gone and in Blackwood's last drawing Harry visits the grave. Here at least there is some resolution for Harry in dealing with his pet's death.

b) Danger

Many books deal with how individuals cope with real dangers in their daily life. Each of these generally conclude with the main character coming to a new understanding of themselves and their world, that will help to equip them to deal with future problems.

'The Biggest Bear', by Lynd Ward (1952) is a beautiful book, with detailed pencil drawings throughout. It tells the story of a small boy named Johnny who lives on a farm close to the woods and who decides that he must deal with a great bear who had once threatened his grandfather. But in a real twist, instead of shooting the great bear, he ends up befriending it.

Bill Peet's wonderful book 'Cowardly Clyde' (1980) tells the story of a brave (is that foolish) knight named Sir Galavant and his stead (Clyde). Sir Galavant sets off to kill a dragon that is terrorising the territory, but Clyde is reluctant. The dragon is found but unfortunately it is Clyde that needs to be the brave conqueror not his master, and in the process he learns new lessons in the face of great danger.

c) The threat of other children

There are a number of children's books that deal with the threat of other children, usually with a focus on bullying. Some of these stories deal with animal characters and some with children.

Barbara Shook Hazen's book 'The New Dog' (1995) tells the story of Tootsie, a small white dog whom Miss Pettibone pampers. But Miss Pettibone sends Tootsie off to Danny's Dog walking Group where he learns that life can be tough and other dogs cruel. Tootsie is the new dog trying to break into a group of canine friends who enjoy picking on him. And of course, he has to prove himself.

In similar vein, Al Perkins 'The Digging-est Dog' tells the story of Duke who is rescued by Tommy Brown from the pet store to live on his farm. Duke is introduced to the local dogs and is well received until it becomes obvious that he cannot dig. In trying to prove himself to his mates Duke overshoots the mark and causes problems for his master. But ultimately there is a resolution.

Judy Blume's book 'Blubber' is a classic book for primary aged children that deals with bullying. Jill joins in with the rest of the fifth-grade class to torment a classmate, but she finds out what it is like when the tables are turned on her and she becomes the target.


3. Coping with the challenges of Isolation

Another common fear that children and adults face is the fear of being isolated and alone. One of the best examples that I know of is Jan Ormerod's wonderful picture book 'Lizzie Nonsense' (2004), which was rightfully awarded a Children's Book Council of Australia honour book in 2005. Lizzie lives with her mother, father and baby sister in almost total isolation deep in the Australian bush of the late 19th century. When Lizzie's father heads off for days at a time to cut timber, they are left alone and wait expectantly for his return. Lizzie copes by living in her own fantasyland that her mother sees as "Lizzie nonsense". Her mother protects herself and her family from the perils of the Australian bush as they await the first sign of dust in the distance, telltale sign of their father and husband's return. The books strength is the way it portrays the separate experiences of isolation by all family members and how they cope in their different ways.

4. Coping with the loss of something special

All children at some time will have to deal with the loss of something special. One of my favourite examples of a book that addresses this sub-theme is Shirley Hughes' wonderful story 'Dogger' (1977). This is a favourite with my grandchildren. Dave loses his precious soft brown dog that he calls 'Dogger'. He searches everywhere without success and has to go to bed without him. The whole family joins in the crisis as they seek to find Dogger for whom there is no acceptable substitute. The next day Dave discovers Dogger at the Summer Fair on a stall for sale, but he doesn't have the 5p needed to purchase him and another little girl buys him first. Eventually the problem is solved with Dave's sister Bella unselfishly saving the day by swapping a brand new teddy that she has won to get Dogger back.

Summing Up

I've just scratched the surface with this big thematic area. As can be seen from the above examples, many books offer children the opportunity (or perhaps invitation) to explore their fears. Parents and teachers have a key role to introduce children to such books at appropriate times and support them as they experience the stories and learn from them.

Related links

All previous posts on Key Themes in Children's Literature (here)

Note: This is a revised version of a post I shared on the 27th June 2009.