Tricky Little Hippo, by Jane Bowring, illustrated by Nina Rycroft

‘What is it, little one?’ said Egret.
‘Well,’ said Holly, ‘Honey was best at staying under water, and Heath was best at chasings. I want to be best at something too.’

Holly has fun playing with her hippo friends Heath and Honey, but she is never the best at anything. No matter how hard she tries, one of the others always outdoes her. Each night her wise friend Egret reassures Holly that she is the best at something, but Holly has no idea what that something is. When she does figure it out, she is finally the best.

Tricky Little Hippo is a gorgeous new picture book from the team of author Jane Bowring and illustrator Nina Rycroft. Youngsters will delight in the gentle humour of the tale, which has a subtle message about hidden talents and the notion that every child has unique abilities.

The design of this book is a treat. The watercolour illustrations are in rich pastels – with the browns of the hippopotamuses contrasting with the greens and blues of their surrounds. The two double page spreads of Holly swimming underwater, surrounded by golden fish and with the legs of her unsuspecting friends in the background, are especially clever. Another nice touch is the presence of Egret at times when Holly seems unware that he is there, suggesting that he is looking out for her, without interfering.

This is a lovely story for shared reading and would make a good bedtime story, suitable for two to five year olds.


Trciky Little Hippo, by Jane Bowring, illustrated by Nina Rycroft
Koala Books, 2005

The Stone Ship, by Peter Raftos

When Shipton takes himself to a remote island to commit suicide, he feels that all is lost. His wife has died in chidbirth and he has severed links with his family and his job as a bureaucrat. As he sits alone on the island, trying to figure the best way to end his life, he is rescued by a ghost, who seeks his favour in return for saving his life.

Led by the ghost, Shipton travels to a far off university, a massive stone structure surrounded by sea. Here, amidst the labyrinth passages, staircases, rooms and apartments, Shipton is forced to do the ghost’s bidding and extract revenge against a professor who has wronged him. But lurking deep beneath the university is a creature whose demands may indeed be stronger than those of the ghost.

This is a dark but intriguing first novel, with the reader never quite sure what is real and what is not. The University is a massive place, managed by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy and presided over by a chancellor who has lived for more than two hundred years. In the library, rampaging librarians battle over books and relics, and books which have lost their meaning rot in dark cellars. The creature which dwells beneath the university feasts on the dead and on those who must be punished.

Readers with a love for the absurd will revel in this brooding fable.

The Stone Ship, by Peter Raftos
Pandanus Books, 2005

In the Line of Fire, by Rex Sadler and Tom Hayllar

In the years since Federation, a large element of Australia’s national identity has been forged by our role in international conflicts. In In the Line of Fire, authors Rex Sadler and Tom Hayllar explore this role. What sets this book apart from other such books is that much of the talking is done by the very men (and women) who fought in these conflicts.

Focussing on on the two world wars, Korea and Vietnam, the book details the important events of each conflict and then shares stories from these conflicts. These stories include first-hand accounts – recollections, biographies, letters home and extracts from other book-length accounts. There are also more than 60 photographs included to add visual weight to the words.

As well as focussing on different campaigns – including Gallipoli, the Kokokoda Trail and Tobruk – there are also chapters devoted to the role of women, war photographers, and Victoria Cross recipients.

The use of first-hand accounts makes this a highly personalised, very real offering, providing personal insights into the hardships of war.

In the line of Fire, by Rex Sadler and Tom Hayllar
Macmillan, 2005

Hooray for Horrible Harriet, by Leigh Hobbs

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball


Like Old Tom, television’s favourite and scruffiest cat, Horrible Harriet is one of life’s more interesting and less popular people. Hobbs excels in creating unusual characters and Harriet is no exception. She’s larger and stockier than her classmates, and tends to bully and intimidate the others. She lives in the attic of school, where she creates outrageous and unpalatable dishes. In her latest adventure, Harriet creates a new dish, Chicken Surprise, emphasis on the Surprise. Mr Chicken was invented to be Harriet’s friend, but she’s cooked up a little more than she can chew, because he’s even more horrible than Harriet. His manners are atrocious, he scares the other students and teachers, and worst of all, he keeps growing and growing. Fortunately Harriet knows just what to do, and when she takes care of Mr Chicken, she becomes the most popular girl at school, for a while at least.

Harriet isn’t your typical cute and cuddly heroine, and her desperation is actually quite sad, but for such a loud seemingly obnoxious bully, she is surprisingly endearing. Children will certainly enjoy reading about and listening to her adventures, and both parent and child will feel a surprising sense of relief as we did in the first CBC-shortlisted Horrible Harriet, when she goes back to being horrible. Hobbs’ drawings are as crazy and funny as always, and her simple facial expressions are amazingly evocative, as are those of the teachers and fellow students. I’m sure we all know someone just like Harriet. It’s also very funny indeed to have such a benign animal like the chicken (a plucked, cooked chicken no less) function as a frightening antagonist. Don’t be surprised if this book illicites a serious case of the giggles. Perhaps, like Hobbs, this book will help us to see that all children have unique characteristics and to remember not to take ourselves too seriously. Just watch out for those home-made chicken friends.

Horray for Horrible Harriet, by Leigh Hobbs Allen & Unwin, March 2005, ISBN 1741143357, HC, 32pages

This review first appeared at Preschool Entertainment. It appears here with permission.


Hugo the Flying Firefighter, by Lorette Broekstra

The first in a series, Hugo the Flying Firefighter is a delightfully entertaining story made more enjoyable by the bright, colourful illustrations.

Hugo sets out in his plane for a journey over Hometown only to discover a fire at the Pigdons’ house. Unable to get the attention of local residents Hugo uses the planes smoke switch to write a message in the sky, raising the alarm for the local firefighters and saving the Pigdons’ house.

The author has used few words to take Hugo on his journey across the skies of Hometown. This makes the story easy for younger children to follow. Repetition of expressions and names allows children to anticipate what happens next. The use of different sized text places emphasis on the more exciting moments in the story.

The illustrations are delightful, simply and accurately portraying what is in the text. The beautifully bright pictures portray a wonderful perspective from the aeroplane. The illustrations are not complex and invite discussion about what is happening in them. This highlights an educational benefit of the story, especially for pre-school aged children who can use it as a discussion point to talk about fire safety. There is also the opportunity for colour and object recognition for small children and number recognition for pre-schoolers.

This is an enjoyable story that will delight children up to about 5 years.

Hugo the Flying Firefighter, Broekstra, Lorette (illus and text)
Allen and Unwin, 2004, $24.95, ISBN 1741143349

Up and Down, by Peter Whitfield

Reviewed by Kathryn Duncan

Up and Down is the second in a series of books based on Zen Tales. There are nine characters in the series each representing a human characteristic such as love, fearlessness or anger.

This story is about inspiration. Monkey is bored and when he finds that he cannot occupy himself, he focuses his attention on wanting to destroy Shri Shelley’s home. Shri Shelley, as the teacher in this story, helps Monkey occupy his time by giving him meaningless tasks to perform. When he becomes tired from the repetition of a task, Monkey soon realises that he has wasted his day, rather than doing the things he enjoys.

The major difference between Up and Down and the first book in the series, Bruno Dreams of Ice Cream is the number of characters in the story. This time there are only two of the nine characters and this makes the story much easier to follow. The message seems clearer and the story is easier to read than the first.

Once again, Nancy Bevington’s illustrations provide a delightful visual accompaniment to Peter Whitford’s text. They are clear and colourful and whilst the first book had an earthy feel about it, Up and Down focuses on green. There is an abundance of it from the colour on the text pages to the landscape that dominates many of the pictures. The illustrator has contrasted the green with brown and blue allowing the characters to become the focal point of the pages.

As with the first book, Up and Down has a message told within a story that children will enjoy. Unlike Bruno Dreams of Ice Cream, this story would be suitable for children aged five and over. Younger children will still get some enjoyment from the pictures.

The original Zen Tale is included at the end of the story.

Up and DownBevington, Nancy (illus.), Peter Whitford (text)
New Frontier Publishing, 2004, $19.95, ISBN 0975090739

No Presents Please, by Peter Whitfield

Reviewed by Kathryn Duncan


The third book in the Zen Tale series, No Presents Please is as enjoyable as the first two. The books are based on Zen Tales, with each of the nine characters in the series representing a human characteristic such as love, fearlessness or anger.

No Presents Please is about dealing with anger. Grizzel Bear becomes angry when Guru Walter Wombat does not do as he demands. Whilst Grizzel becomes angrier during the meeting, Guru Walter remains calm. This eventually leads Grizzel to question his own behaviour.

This is a message that many adults could learn from. The Zen Tale itself provides the answer to dealing with anger, “I refuse to accept your anger, so you will have to keep it for yourself.” This is a powerful message.

As with Up and Down, this story benefits from having only two characters. It is easy to follow and clearly conveys the essence of the original tale, an advantage in getting the message across to readers. This is a story that should help children, and hopefully adults, address issues they may have with anger.

Nancy Bevington’s illustrations again provide a delightful visual accompaniment to Peter Whitford’s text. They are clear and colourful and the focus this time is on blue. The Zen symbol and page frames are a soft pale blue and do not detract from the illustrations in any way. The use of colour to frame the pages and display the Zen symbol is a pleasing theme with the Zen Tail series. There is also the predominance of green within the pictures as once again the activity of the story takes place outside. The orange and red of the character’s clothing breaks up the browns and greens, which could become monotonous as they series continues.

The illustrations convey the emotions felt by the characters and in this case anger, confusion, contentment and happiness are all defined in the faces of Grizzel and Guru Walter.

Once again, this is an enjoyable story with a message we could all learn from. The Zen Tale is again provided at the back of the book.


No Presents PleaseBevington, Nancy (illus.), Peter Whitford (text)
New Frontier Publishing, 2004, $19.95, ISBN 0975090747


Little Red Bear, by Penny Matthews and Anna Pignataro

When Hanna and her busy mother go for a quick walk, Hanna sees a litte red bear sitting alone on a wall outside an office building. He seems to be lost. Back at home, Hanna can’t stop worrying about the bear, especially when it gets windy and, the next day, wet.

Hanna’s mother is too busy to go and check on the bear, but Hanna knows what it’s like to be afraid, so she sneaks out and goes looking for him. When she finds him, wet and bedraggled, she takes him home to her worried mother.

Little Red Bear is a story about a girl and a toy bear, but it is also about reassurance and connectedness. Hanna forms a connection with the bear, relating to its being alone and uncared for. When she runs away to rescue the bear, she also learns that her busy mother does care for her. The warmth that she feels when she holds the bear in front of the fire comes from more than the feeling of having a new toy – it is, more importantly, from the reassurance of knowing she is loved.

The rich water colour illustrations by Anna Pignataro enrich this calm, heart-warming story. Hanna and the bear add colour to the muted beiges and olives of the stormy landscape, with a visual connection between the two forged by the almost-red brown of Hanna’s hair just a little darker the red of the bear. Hanna’s house and mother are similarly drab in tonings, with Hanna being the only colour in the house, until the arrival of the bear.

This is such a gentle story that youngsters are unlikely to conciously realise the lesson of reassurance that it holds, but parent readers will be sure to take note of the message that is there for adults.

Little Red Bear, by Penny Matthews and Anna Pignataro
Scholastic, First Published 2003, this edition 2005

My Dearest Dinosaur, by Margaret Wild and Donna Rawlins

My dearest Dinosaur,
Such news! The egss have hatched and we have seven little ones.
I wish you could see the wriggly, tiggly rascals. But where are you?
We are here. Here!

As a mother dinosaur begins the journey into new motherhood, she must also cope with the absence of her mate, who has disappeared whilst off looking for a safer place to live. As she raises her youngsters, she keeps her partner informed of their progress and shares her longing for his return.

Whilst the text is written as if a diary or letters to the absent father, the illustrations, by the talented Donna Rawlins, show mother and babies that are not anthropomorphised, allowing the reader to know that there is no letter or diary. Instead, Wild is giving us an interpretation of the dinosaur’s emotions, allowing readers to connect in a way that would be unlikely with a non-fiction explanation or a thrid-person telling of the tale.

Through both word and illustration, young readers are offered an insight into the daily life of the dinosaurs and of the terrain of the times, with forests, rivers, swamps and plains all depicted. The topic of extinction is also touched on, with the dinosaur mother dreaming of the start of the ice age.

This is not a cheery bedtime tale – the dinosaur babies grow up and leave the mother alone, still searching for her mate – but it is not overly maudlin either. It is most likely to appeal to young dinosaur fans in the early school years and would be a useful classroom resource, both for the dinosaur theme and as an example of a story through letters.

First published in 1992, My Dearest Dinosaur has been rereleased in paperback format.

My Dearest Dinosaur, by Margaret Wild and Donna Rawlins
Scholastic, first published 1992, this version 2005

Magwheel Madness, by Jon Doust & Ken Spillman

In their last adventure, the Serventy Kids had to work together to save the magpies that the local council was determined to eradicate. Now, the birds are safe, but the kids aren’t. Local hoons are out looking for fun and their idea of fun spells danger for the younger kids.

First, the year sixes are on a school excursion which is ruined when a speeding car runs them off the road. Then sometime rips up the school oval. The kids decide they’ve had enough. Someone needs to act before their school is ruined – or, worse still, someone is seriously injured.

What it takes to put a stop to the hoons is a team effort, a little detective work and some proactive thinking.

Magwheel Madness is an exciting sequel to Magpie Mischief and shows kids working together to change things that effect them. Looking at themes of responsibility, team work and honesty, the book’s main appeal is its humour and pace.

A good fun read.

Magwheel Madness, by Jon Doust and Ken Spillman
Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005