we're going on a road trip - just a short one 

We're heading off to Canada for a three-week road trip, but we'll be back and posting again on Friday 7 October.

In honour of the occasion we republished (below) Waiting for the Whales - the only picture book we have that's set in Canada. So far. That's about to change!

There'll be LOTS of Canadian picture books coming home with us!

Love and take care - see you in October xx

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intergenerational love and the Orcas of Canada - a tale to prompt one's own family storytelling

by Sheryl McFarlane & Ron Lightburn - Orca Book Publishers, 2002
ages 4 to 12 years / s.o.s.e. 

Telling family stories is one of the great – and most enjoyable – keys to adolescent resilience. But, just as reading doesn’t come easily to all families, telling family stories can also sometimes feel stilted, difficult or even disingenuous. 

Waiting for the Whales makes a really nice stepping stone to family storytelling. 

It’s about a grandfather living a simple life of gardening and watching the seasons. 

He contributes to his community by sharing his produce, he shares the knowledge that he's accumulated over a lifetime and he watches for the whales. “It seemed to him that there was nothing more wonderful than these great mammals of the sea.” 

The story is simply told and the grandfather doesn’t have one particular shining moment – instead, it’s the collection of many small moments that make his life worth learning about and listening to.

He has a daughter and, in the course of time, she returns home with a baby girl; his granddaughter.  

This moment isn’t presented as pivotal in the grandfather’s life, it’s just a part of the whole.

The baby grows to a little girl and she comes to love her grandfather and to love the things he loves – the whales, the forest, his garden. 

Eventually and inevitably, the grandfather dies and his daughter and granddaughter find comfort in the Orcas that he loved to watch out for each summer.  

One of the things that make this story a great stepping stone to telling family stories is that it celebrates normalcy. The important part of the grandfather’s story wasn’t his work, his war service, his feats of derring-do, or his marvellous creativity - it was his love of the whales, his love of gardening and his love of family. 

The impact of the little girl on her grandfather is comforting and reassuring – children are important in the lives of adults too - and the story is also about grief and the inevitability of change and loss. And overcoming to feel joy again.

This is a picture book to prompt one's own family stories – it leads easily to thoughts and memories, so 'after' conversations may flow along these lines: 

'Funny how grumpy the grandfather was at first, hey. Maybe grandpas are just like that sometimes'; or

'Gee I love being at the ocean – I remember when my mum used to take me to the beach camping'; or

'That grandfather sure did love gardening – my grandfather loved ....'; or

'I remember the first time I showed you to grandma'; or

'I was so sad when your grandfather died, I can really understand how the little girl felt'; or

'You know, we should really write down some of things we love to do with ........' 

And so on.

Here's one small snippet from Waiting for the Whales that I particularly liked - 

"The old man grumbled something about noisy babies.

But when he held the tiny infant, something deep within him stirred.

And he remembered holding his own children when they were small."

This is a wonderful book for young whale lovers, and the light-filled and often poignant illustrations make the family's life feel very real and accessible. 

You can buy Waiting for the Whales via these direct links: Amazon - Book Depository

a graphic portrayal of what it is to feel alone, and what it is to heal

by Mel Tregonning – Allen & Unwin, 2016
ages 10 years to adult / emotional resilience, read-it-before-you-need-it

Tosltoy began Anna Karenina with these, now famous, words: 

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

He was suggesting that there are many ways to be unhappy, yet only one way to be happy. I’m not sure I agree.

The experience of living with profound unhappiness may well have its genesis in a myriad of circumstances and feelings but the feeling itself is frequently transferable.

In Small Things, a young boy is beset by feelings of inadequacy and unhappiness as small things happen to and around him. 

There are no words and no colour in this moving picture book, instead:

We follow the boy through the monotone grey of his school day where he feels excluded and ignored, where he underperforms on tests and feels that he has failed, to his home where he is loved but still feels pressured and stressed.

His experiences may not be ours, but he is unhappy in ways that every reader will understand. In contrast to Tolstoy’s unhappy families, we are, in the end, all unhappy in the same way. Small Things' detailed and evocative images help us to sink deep into the boy’s heart – where we will see ourselves, and all who have felt alone and disheartened.

As the boy becomes increasingly weighed down by his worries and sorrows, more and more demons attach themselves to him.

Parts of his very being start to break away. 

He becomes less and less himself. 

It’s a wearying journey to follow – albeit one that rings of truth and of heartache. But it’s also a journey that speaks to resilience, determination and, most of all, love!

The boy has a sister who has her own scars and imperfections but who is still able to reach out and show concern. He has parents who love him and support him too.

When he is finally able to take a tiny step towards the love that is waiting for him, the demons start to leave and he becomes more and more whole. 

Eventually, we see that everyone has demons to deal with and the boy is able to reach out and help a girl who is broken - because he knows what it is to be unhappy.

Small things built up and gave strength to the demons, and small things overcame them in the end. 

The boy himself does small things to help another person too. 

This is a serious book about a serious subject, it’s one that bears thinking about. And while it may resonate with someone in the midst of despair, it will also help the friends and family of someone who is struggling to understand and to empathise.

Although this is a story without words, told entirely in pictures, it is a book for late pre-teens, teens and adults - because the depth of the boy's experience is best understood with some small amount of life-experience.

(There's a terribly sad back-story to this picture book about Mel Tregonning’s life, her struggles and eventual loss to suicide. Tremendous love and admiration are shown by her sister, Violet, who tells Mel’s story.)

If I were asked to describe Small Things in one sentence, I'd say it is a lovely meditation on the impact that small things can have on one life or on many lives.

You can buy Small Things via these direct links: Amazon - Book Depository - Booktopia

an exploration of what it means to be a friend - for good or ill

by Timo Parvela, illustrated by Virpi Talvitie – Gecko Press, 2016
ages 4 to 12 years / chapter books, emotional resilience, funny

Friendships are seldom perfect, especially when the friends are new to forming and maintaining relationships outside their immediate family. 

Purdy (the cat) and Barker (the dog) have a solid but anguished sort of friendship. 

It’s the sort of friendship that will be instantly recognisable to many kids and their parents (or teachers).

Purdy and Barker live together in a charming little blue house on top of a hill, and in Bicycling to the Moon we follow them through a year of adventures and arguments.

Purdy is a thrill seeker.  He joys in creativity and adventure. He’s also self-absorbed and irresponsible:

'Purdy certainly could be lazy and comfort-loving but, when he badly wanted to do something, he could also be very determined.'

Barker, by way of contrast, is steady and hard working.  He’s irascible sometimes and occasionally manipulative. But he can always be counted on to get the work done and he has a soft spot for Purdy and his wild dreams:

'Barker believed that hard work pays off. He also believed that all’s well that ends well; a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; if you set a trap for others, you’ll fall into it yourself; the early bird catches the worm; and a hidden bone is the best bone. He’d come up with that last proverb himself.'

There are twenty chapters in this book and each one is a nice bedtime-reading length. (Also there’s a proper Table of Contents, which is a bit of a thrill when you’re just embarking on the world of chapter books.)

Aside from being an enjoyable read-aloud book and a great early reader, Bicycling to the Moon is wonderful for:

Examining friendships and recognising that they are seldom smooth sailing all the time. Purdy and Barker embark on an all-out tomato throwing war in ‘The Great Tomato War’. It all starts with a couple of misunderstandings and ends with hesitant apologies, lingering annoyance and finally reconciliation.

Talking about gossip. Purdy is a gossipy cat and worries constantly what others will think of him. When Purdy and some friends exclude Winky Pig because they think she is getting too full of herself, Barker saves the day by talking to Winky and discovering it’s Winky’s birthday. Meanwhile Purdy and friends are shut inside, feeling miserable. It’s a succinct and pointed lesson in being kind and inclusive.

Talking about how friends can lift and help each other. Purdy and Barker have many occasions when they are just plain mean to each other, but they contrast strongly with those times when they are kind and thoughtful.

Each of the chapters takes Purdy and Barker on another adventure – and inevitably another conflict! Some they deal with beautifully, some remain unresolved, some fester. Which is quite often the way of friendships. 

Following Purdy and Barker as they navigate their way through their challenging friendship can be confrontational: 

Can we enjoy Purdy for all his enthusiasm and his big dreams and still love Barker for his constancy and quiet in the eye of a storm

Can we love them both in spite of their glaring character flaws?

Navigating these tricky questions can help when we must deal with similar real-life issues.

There's an especially charming end to this book – Purdy and Barker sit together at the end of the year which began with Purdy’s wild idea of bicycling to the moon, thinking about their adventures and their future. And they loftily think about the passage of time and their place in the world:

“Let me guess how it ends,” Purdy said. “Underneath that apple tree there’ll be a cat and a dog. They’ll drink juice and they’ll be best friends.”

“Yes. Except, that’s not the end, it’s the beginning.”

Bicycling to the Moon is an off-beat tale filled with life-questions and life-lessons. It’s great for talking about the complexities of friendship and for considering the type of friend we want to be and have.

P.S. Depending on the situation, this could also be a useful book for talking about bullying. Both Purdy and Barker bully the other once in a while but it’s usually very subtle, as bullying often is. Purdy and Barker are both loveable, the friendship is real, but so is the bullying - making this a great book for leading into a conversation about subtle-bullying.

You can buy Bicycling To The Moon via these direct links: AmazonBook Depository - Booktopia

You might also like to browse these books from our friendship theme.

Names in this book - Purdy, Barker, Henny, Daisy, Martha, Connie

one book each ... refugees

by Richard Flanagan, illustrated by Ben Quilty – Penguin Random House Australia, Vintage Books, 2016
in/ adult nonfiction, one book each

by Francesca Sanna – Flying Eye Books, 2016
ages 6 years to adult/ emotional resiliencepowerful lives, read-it-before-you-need-it, s.o.s.e.

Here’s what I recommend – set aside (barely) an hour, settle somewhere quiet, and read Notes On An Exodus

It is (as per the subtitle) an essay more than a book, so it won’t take long to get through. But what you read will stay with you for hours, days, probably years.

Notes On An Exodus is a collection of stories – there are no big number facts or political rants. They're simply the stories of refugees. Snapshots really.  

We know so little about their lives and who they are. But the brief glimpses that we get as we read are enough for us to recognise ourselves – our hopes and imaginings, our families, our work – and we are immediately and intricately connected to people we will never meet, in circumstances we will likely never know.

Flanagan calls the movement from Syria “the great exodus of our age” and quickly moves from the broad scale and scope of that movement to the minutia of human lives. 

Forced to choose between life and death, they choose life, even when it means living for years in shelters that are half-hovel, half-tent, framed of scrounged timbers and clad in a motley of plastics. In these shanties pride does daily battle with poverty and elements.

Each person in the essay tells of their love for Syria and their desire to return. They also tell of the awfulness that attended their decision to leave and the almost unthinkable circumstances they now endure. And still they know they did what was best for their families.

Reading the intimacies of the lives of just a few refugees is profoundly impacting – far more so than watching screens showing mass movements across vast lands. Flanagan ends with a brief couple of sentences that are a call-to-arms. He writes:

Refugees are not like you and me. They are you and me. That terrible river of the wretched and the damned flowing through Europe is my family.

And there is no time in the future in which they might be helped. The only time we have is now.

All author and illustrator royalties from this book have been donated to World Vision. If you’d prefer to make a direct donation you can do that here.  If you'd like, here's the link to the entire essay. And Ben Quilty, whose beautiful illustrations are in the centre of the book, has also produced some amazing paintings inspired by the stories he heard and saw; you can see a couple of them here

We have a house full of adults (or almost adults) and so I read the entire Notes On An Exodus essay aloud one Monday night. It was a sobering experience. 

For younger children (though perhaps not too young) The Journey by Francesca Sanna has the same sobering and connecting effect, without the harrowing details.

It’s beautiful to look at, with details of a life in upheaval on display so that the words themselves don’t have to overpower young minds.

Certainly, this is a book to promote empathy and give pause in the midst of a busy privileged life - but because the story is told with love and courage it carries an air of resilience.

Part of the story is about crossing borders. After being turned away at a border wall and crossing the sea in an overcrowded ferry, the family board a train:

We travel for more days and more nights, crossing many borders. From the train I look up to the birds that seem to be following us …They are migrating just like us. And their journey is very long too, but they don’t have to cross any borders.

The concept of borders is fascinating to young children – especially Australian children who have no such personal experience. It would be worth having some maps or a globe available to talk about political borders after you’ve read this book.

The Journey is a read-it-before-you-need-it book. It’s a book that will help to develop empathy, increase understanding of the world, position young readers to feel that they have some base knowledge about refugees when they see or hear media reports, and help to increase gratitude.

You can buy Notes On An Exodus via these direct links: Book Depository - Booktopia
and The Journey via Book Depository - Booktopia

Also … our refugee theme has more books that tell the stories of refugees uncompromisingly and beautifully.

Our 'one book each' series features a book that is written for an adult audience along with a picture book that will appeal to children and adults alike.

Lemony Snicket's brief and spectacular video on the bewildering state of childhood

by Daniel Handler a.k.a. Lemony Snicket - PBS Newshour 'Brief But Spectacular' 1 September 2016
ages teen to grownup for the video + kids for the chapter books

There are so many fast and witty grabs in this 3 minute video that I can safely quote from it without being the least bit of a spoiler, like -

How the name Lemony Snicket came about:

'When I was researching my first novel, "The Basic Eight," I was calling up right-wing religious organization and political groups in order to make fun of them.

And I thought to myself, I better not tell her my real name. I will be on their mailing list forever. So, she said, "What is your name?"

So, I said, "Lemony Snicket."

And then there was a pause. And I thought, out of all the things you could have said, that was the worst one. No one was going to believe that. And then the woman from the right-wing organization said, "Is that spelled how it sounds?"'

On children's literature:

'So much of children’s literature is about enforced fun or enforced morality. Surely, you will be rewarded if you behave this way, or aren’t you having a wonderful time reading about this? And you never are. And it never goes that way.'

On writing:

'A writer’s relationship with rejection is like that of a fish to water. It’s all that’s there. I think you should feel it and feel utter despair and then move on.'

On technology (I particularly love this one):

'I was going to say something about technology’s influence on reading, but then I got a text, and I just have to answer it. Can I just — I will be right back.'

Lemony Snicket is a favourite at Kim’s house. A Series of Unfortunate Events was the first set of books that Louisa read all by herself - she had a few late nights as she ploughed through them all in a week. Later, Louisa’s Christmas Eve book was We are Pirates, which she also loved. It's by Daniel Handler and, at the time, the family had no idea that they were one and the same author. 

We also love 13 Words, illustrated by Maira Kalman.

And if you don't mind the upfront outlay, there's this fabulous set: A Series of Unfortunate Events Box - The Complete Wreck (Books 1 - 13).

I hope you enjoy the video!

an alphabet book with a real story - it's funny too!

by Maira Kalman – Penguin Putnam Inc, 2003
ages 2 to 8 years / funny, language

Alphabet books are great for reinforcing alphabetical order and connecting sounds with words. And the art is often brilliant. They’re usually not so great as a story though.

Enter What Pete Ate From A-Z !

This is a classic alphabet book in the sense that it progresses through every letter of the alphabet in order and in the sense that it is full of words to connect with letter sounds, but there’s a very funny story about a naughty but loved dog running through the whole book.

The story and the images are full of family and community with a healthy smattering of angst, conflicted love, and potential for conflict.

Pete impacts everyone around him – not always in ways they appreciate! (But then we’re all like that from time to time, don’t you think?)  

Dog lovers will relate to the ongoing affection that Poppy Wise has for her dog Pete, even in the midst of her exasperation with Pete eating anything and everything.

She becomes a fleshed out character as we are given little insights into her mindset, such as when Pete rips up the list that cousin Rocky keeps of all the times he has been insulted.

Polly says: “Personally, I am happy Pete did it.

This is a terrific book for young children who may be feeling a certain exasperation with all the reading practice they are doing.

It’s worth reading the whole book simply as a story the first few times – it really will stand alone as a narrative. 

Then, because each letter has its own page, it’s great to listen for the sound of the letter on the page. 

And then to look for the letter in the text itself. And to find the things that start with the letter in the pictures on each page.

Also to look for other things starting with the letters that are not mentioned in the text. 

There’s really so much to do with this book.

What Pete Ate is a quintessential Maira Kalman book – it’s cheerful and full of energy but still has a lot of important things to say. I love what she has to say about children’s books:

In a children’s book, the writing is more important than the illustration. If you had not such good writing but better drawings, I’d think the book wasn’t a success. But you could have mediocre drawings with wonderful writing. It’s not so much decorating as trying to find another way to say the same thing, and trying to explore the philosophy and humour visually.” 

Even so, I confess that when I sit down with a new Kalman book, I do pore over the illustrations first. I did with this one too when I bought it several years ago, but once I went back and started reading - well, that’s when I really fell in love. 

A perfect picture book has words that roll off the tongue without compromising the story, and What Pete Ate is like that – it’s easy on the reader.

The words flow beautifully and there are plenty of in-text hints for reading aloud: the text is carefully set out so that it’s easy to know when to pause, which words need a bit of weight and which words should be read with a sigh.

Because this is an alphabet book, it’s expected that there will be words starting with each letter of the alphabet. And one of the things that makes this one especially great is that those words are mingled with other words. So, the ‘Q’ page reads:

Brilliant stuff – there are heaps of ‘Q’ words to look for and listen for, but they are mingled with other words to create a story and to nestle them in real sentences. That’s where we really read and hear words after all.

Also ...if you like to get to know authors and illustrators a bit, like I do, you might enjoy this interview with Maira Kalman:

... plus, here's a collection of another 18 alphabet books that you might like:


You can buy What Pete Ate from A-Z via these direct links: Amazon - Book Depository - Booktopia

Names in What Pete Ate - Pete, Polly, Mookie, Rocky, Bennie, Buster, Olga, Doreen, Robert

real life heroes - they're not always human!

Fabish is a retired racehorse that somehow led seven yearlings to safety during the 2009 Victorian bushfires. 

Those days in February are seared into Australian memories. They were gruelling days even for those of us far away. (For readers outside of Australia, the 2009 bushfires were the deadliest Australia has ever endured.)

This beautiful book is about Fabish and his heroic trainer. It’s a true story, told with compassion and with optimism. While the story of the bushfires remains a tragedy, the story of Fabish shines with hope. 

Fabish’s trainer was faced with trying to protect all of his racehorses from the fire – a herculean task. So he released Fabish and his group of yearlings from their paddock in the hope that they might find a way around it.

For some children there is no substitute for true stories – they want the relative safety of truth so they can deal with the emotions and thoughts brought on by the story without the necessity of separating those feelings from their real world experiences. But limiting a child to a ‘just-the-facts’ style of book means that they miss out on all sorts of opportunities for language development and for exploring opinions and ideas. 

Fabish is a lovely melding of a true story that is superbly narrated and thoughtfully illustrated. Neither the words nor the pictures insist on an emotional reading, but there is certainly plenty to give a reader pause – especially if they remember the bushfires personally.

The bravery of the trainer and his dedication to his horses is sobering and the devastation that greets him is realistic and ominous. In the moments after the fire has passed and the trainer looks out over the blackened paddocks, there’s a deep sense of loss.

This is important. A story about a heartbreaking time cannot be told without moments of grief. Knowing about disasters and knowing that grief is part of that can be strengthening for children, especially when presented as it is here – with a resolution that doesn’t sugarcoat the tragedy but does offer promise of a future.

I especially love this description of the world that confronted the trainer after the fire:

Trees were broken and blackened, and the soil was baked hard. The tack room and machinery shed was a pile of twisted iron and white ash. The wind dropped and the sound of crackling embers filled the air. The trainer’s throat stung. His hands were blistered. The soles of his boots had started to melt when he found an old truck that hadn’t been burnt out. He headed off to the far paddock.

This is an inspiring book – the heroics of the trainer and Fabish are testament to courage and work in impossible circumstances.

You can buy Fabish - the horse that braved a bushfire via these direct links: Amazon - Book Depository - Booktopia 

Also ...other books about the 2009 Victorian bushfires:

Elizabeth Mellor

Elizabeth Mellor

Jackie French, Bruce Whatley

Jackie French, Bruce Whatley


...other books about facing real life with courage:

worried about what to 'be' when you grow up? Number Three is too!

by Drew Dernavich – Henry Holt and Company (Christy Ottaviano Books), 2016
ages 5 to 10 years / funny, s.t.e.m.

I once had a three-year-old who said he wanted to be a professor when he grew up – but he didn’t know what sort of professor, ‘because there are so many interesting things to be’.

Number Three in this story is in pretty much the same boat. There are just so many things a ‘3’ could be. The hump of a camel for example. Or a ship’s anchor.

This is a terrific book with an engaging story and a fair smattering of existential angst going on.

Number Three wants to try out all that life offers, even though it’s cryingly obvious to all his readers that his true calling is as a number.

Number Three is quite successful in his new work – he makes a brilliant sculpture and the list of other possibilities seems endless. 

Ultimately though, Number Three is simply too important as a number, and he misses the role he was born for. 

There’s a fine line between crushing hopes and dreams and valuing the life you were born to lead - but this story does a great job of valuing all of Number Three’s ideas and choices.

There are plenty of nods to the human condition for adults as well as kids; Number Three thinks he has found his place in life as a sculpture and enjoys the adoration he gets for a while, but eventually it all starts to feel a bit hollow - as adoration so often does when it’s not accompanied by purpose and contribution.

There are funny moments scattered all through the story; the humour comes partly from the absurdity of a number being unhappy with its lot in life and partly through clever wording and pictures. I laughed at the page showing Number Three dressed incognito for the State Fair.

There are heaps of great jumping off points for more learning. Number Three is written in words whenever the character is on show and as ‘3’ in the pictures – ideal for talking about reading and writing numbers. 

There’s a whole lot of fun to be had finding Number Three as he tries out new work, like the hem of a dress, the mouth of a cat and so on. 

And there are pictures with an edgy, urban feel to them (author/illustrator Drew Dernavich is a cartoonist for The New Yorker and a whole slew of other great publications). You can see some of his very funny cartoons here.

Although it would probably be quite hard to come up with other roles for Number Three after seeing all the clever ideas in the book, it could be fun to try to find new work for other numbers. (Number Seven could work as a nose on a cartoon face or as door handle for example – but I’m sure imaginative young minds can do better than that!). And it could be fun to write a story about another number using the same storyline.

This is a bright and snappy story that will appeal to kids who are beginning to conceptualise numbers, and to the adults who read it to them.

You can buy It's Not Easy Being Number Three via these direct links: Amazon - Book Depository - Booktopia

Also ...to encourage thinking about life and what you hope to make of it:

...some good jumping-off points for writing:

And, great for a gift, this very funny collection of rejected cartoons from The New Yorker that includes some of Drew Dernavich’s work.

P.S. The ‘professor’ has grown up and settled on teaching English and Media Studies – so far at least.

8 bookshelf ideas (aka eye-candy) to engage and maybe inspire

Bookshelf ideas from all over, we like them a lot, maybe you will too. Some are achievable, some not so much - but still beautiful to look at.


You might also like this floating supershelf or ... you might like to just follow the lead of these children, they had the whole books thing covered! Sort of.

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