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Book reviews: Children’s picture books tackle difficult subjects

Posted by on 29/06/2018

Whether it is coming to terms with your failings, tapping into your essential nature, finding your way when you are lost, appreciating and respecting the elderly, or coming to terms with death, picture books are an excellent vehicle for presenting complex and difficult concepts to children.

The Last King of Angkor Wat (Penguin, 36 pages, $26.99) features Graeme Base’s trademark exotic creatures, intricate framings and stunning settings. His painterly artwork spills across each double-page spread, dynamically breaking frame to create visually challenging and at times even threatening images. Inspired by the artwork of the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, The Last King tells the tale of four animals – Tiger, Gibbon, Water Buffalo and Gecko – who live in the ruins of the temple.

One day, they argue about who amongst them has the qualities to be a king. The animals accept the challenge of a mysterious elephant to race each other to the temple at the top of the hill to test their strengths. They discover that they all have both good qualities and significant failings. Their real challenge is then to use that knowledge to better themselves. Base has created yet another compelling animal fable with distinct folktale resonances and impressive imagery.

One common human failing is the propensity to judge people by their appearances, rather than finding out what lies beneath. This is sensitively explored by Ellie Royce in Lucas and Jack (Penguin, 32 pages, $24.99), a warm-hearted story about a small boy who somewhat reluctantly accompanies his mother when she visits his great-grandfather in the old folks’ home. When Lucas starts talking to Pop’s friend, Jack, he learns to see beneath the grey hair and wrinkled skin of the old people around him, who he discovers have led full and often very interesting lives.

Andrew McLean brings Royce’s characters to life in charming watercolour portraits of young Lucas and his elderly friends, as well as evocative double-page panoramas of their early lives, complete with historical details. This gentle, heart-warming book encourages the building of closer relationships between the young and the old.

Lucia Masciullo also captures both the young and the old in delicate watercolour images as she explore the many layers of Sonya Hartnett’s well-crafted text for The Wild One (Penguin, 32 pages, $24.99). At the heart of this book is the proposition that, no matter what age we are, inside all of us is a “Wild One” – a brave, unselfconscious child who rolls in the mud, splashes in puddles, scatters autumn leaves and climbs trees.

Unfortunately, for most of us that wild version of self is subsumed all too soon by the responsibilities of adulthood. However, our wild side can be unleashed again if we look at the world through the eyes of a child. Using carefully chosen words and a measured, sure text, Hartnett charts the progress of Charlie and his Wild One through the cycle of life and the cycles of nature.

Lucia Masciullo visually documents Charlie’s life with a contemplative palette of predominantly greens, greys and browns. She creates a flesh-and-blood Wild One – a companion for Charlie who, Pan-like, does not age as he does, but remains a wild-haired, old-fashioned creature of the woods and rivers. For budding naturalists, Masciullo also incorporates ghost-like images of plants, insects and animals, complete with their Latin nomenclature. This thoughtful and interesting book encourages the reader to be aware of the importance of the natural world around them.

However, sometimes the natural world can be a dangerous place, and stories of children getting lost in the bush continue to resonate. The Lost Girl (Walker, 32 pages, $24.95) by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Leanne Tobin tells the tale of an Aboriginal girl who wanders away from her extended family. Luckily, she has been trained in the ways of the bush and is aware that nature provides water, food and places to keep warm for those who know where to look. As night falls, the girl follows a crow back to her home, where she is welcomed into the arms of her family.

Kwaymullina’s engaging text has strong traditional storytelling cadences, and Tobin’s accompanying highly expressive and detailed illustrations depict the Australian bush and its flora and fauna in strong saturated colours. This fascinating story documents and celebrates the girl’s survival and the importance of her Indigenous culture.

Nature also plays an important role in the exquisitely produced and illustrated The Soldier’s Gift (Viking, 38 pages, $26.99), written by Tony Palmer and illustrated by Jane Tanner. In this picture book for older readers, the details of the story are contained in the extensive text. Emily and her brother Tom live on a farm with their father. On this farm grows the cypress tree that their mother planted before she died. Emily and Tom share a close relationship, which is captured in Tanner’s stunning photorealistic portraits, presented in evocative historical and natural settings.

Emily’s world is shattered when her brother, who is only 18, enlists in the First World War and heads off to fight at Gallipoli. He sends Emily letters, the last of which contains the seeds of a pine tree. Then comes the much dreaded telegram telling them that Tom has been killed. That night a raging storm destroys their mother’s tree. Much later, when they are finally ready to start the healing process, Emily and her father plant Tom’s seeds beside her mother’s ruined tree.

This moving picture book tells the story of war from the perspective of those who must live with its effects on a daily basis. The Soldier’s Gift also includes informative historical sections on the war in Europe and its effects on those left at home. From the linen front cover with its old-fashioned sketches, to the sepia historical records and photographs on the endpapers, to Tanner’s strikingly emotive images, this superb piece of book-making and storytelling deals insightfully with a difficult subject.

Stephanie Owen Reeder is an award-winning Canberra author, illustrator and editor, whose children’s books include Lost! A True Tale from the Bush and Dance Like a Pirate (NLA Publishing).

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

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