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Worth a thousand words: the top 10 best Australian children’s picture books

The academics and the “mummy bloggers” are in furious agreement – reading picture books to children is one of the best things you can do for a child’s development. It also happens to be, in the opinion…

Reading from an early age can instill healthy habits for a lifetime. “Possum Magic”, by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas. Scholastic

The academics and the “mummy bloggers” are in furious agreement – reading picture books to children is one of the best things you can do for a child’s development.

It also happens to be, in the opinion of this humble author, one of the best things an adult can do for their own development. A reminder that the greatest joys in life are often the simplest.

“Imagine”, by Alison Lester. Allen and Unwin

To fill a young mind with a lasting sense of wonder and teach a child the joy of reading makes a picture book among the most valuable gift you can give.

Yet this year’s Christmas stockings seem more likely to be filled with electronic devices and other digital distractions.

Book sales have been in a state of decline in recent years and picture books have not been immune. According to Neilsen BookScan, sales for picture books fell about 6% in the past 12 months while sales for all books are down around 11%.

The realm of imagination

“Amy & Louis”, by Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood. Scholastic
Call me nostalgic but I am not sure that the new competitors for children’s attention carry the riches of a book or are the sort of gift that can last a lifetime or change a life.

The fertile field of a child’s imagination makes a picture book a powerful medium - to transport them to an imaginary place, captivate them with magical themes or have them convulsing in stitches of laughter.

“The Hero of Little Street”, by Gregory Rogers. Allen and Unwin

A well written children’s story allows children to explore their own blossoming emotions and make connections between the book and their own experience in the real world.

Australia punches above its weight in children’s entertainment. The Wiggles frequently top the annual list of our highest earning entertainers and other global success stories include Bananas in Pyjamas and Play School.

In children’s books we have an equally proud record. Since 1945 the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) has worked to promote Australian authors and illustrators and engage the community with children’s literature.

Judging books beyond the cover

In the shadow of that long tradition I have attempted the superficial task of selecting the ten all-time best Australian children’s picture books.

“Diary of a Wombat”, by Jackie French. HarperCollins

In doing so, I have made some attempt at objective criteria.

For the sanity of the grown-ups it must be a story that can be read many times over. The language should be economical, with a rhythmic meter or memorable rhyme. The storyline must resonate and surprises are great.

Great children’s books can be beautifully simple while also containing complex ideas and multiple layers. The best picture books are compact little stories that also feel complete.

“Where is the Green Sheep”, by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek. Penguin

My selection criteria are also unashamedly subjective. The acid test is my three daughters – if they don’t love the book then all the critical acclaim in the world does not count a jot.

Finally, I have not judged a story more favourably because it is heavy on Australiana. Yet the final list is unmistakably Australian. This probably tells us something about the sorts of stories we tell our children and how in turn we understand our country.

I should also mention that in my children’s affections, this list of Australian stories rank alongside the international classics. It seems even children know when they are reading a story that is close to home.

The list

So at the risk of causing offence to many, here is a very subjective guide to ten Australian picture stories we don’t want our nation’s kids to leave childhood without having read.

“Fox”, by Margaret Wild. Allen and Unwin

1) Fox - Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks (2000)

An emotional journey into the heart of darkness and hope – set in the searing Australian outback. A fable on friendship, trust and loyalty. This is a masterpiece that can be appreciated by adults and children alike.

2) The Hero of Little Street - Gregory Rogers (2010)

A boy and a dog jump into a famous Vermeer painting and find themselves transported to seventeenth century Holland – danger, excitement and adventure follows. Plus some wonderful high-end cultural references for grown-ups.

“Anamalia” by Graeme Base. Penguin
3) Animalia - Graeme Base (1986)

The exquisite detail of the illustrations will captivate children as they search for hidden objects and alphabetized things. This is a book to get lost in.

4) Possum Magic - Mem Fox, Julie Vivas (1983)

It’s as Australian as meat pies, Vegemite and Possum Magic. This is probably our best-loved children’s book ever.

5) Amy and Louis - Libby Gleeson and Freeya Blackwood (2006)

This is a beautiful story about a deep friendship between two children and how they cope following separation.

“Tiddalick the frog who caused a flood”, by Robert Roennfeld. Penguin

6) Tiddalick The Frog Who Caused a Flood - Robert Roennfeldt (1980)

Based on an Aboriginal Dreamtime story, Tiddalick was so thirsty that he drank up all the rivers and billabongs in the land. And the other animals had to find a way to get the water back – much humour follows.

7) Imagine - Alison Lester (1989)

Written by one of the greats of Australian children’s literature I chose this book from the almost 40 she has written simply because it happens to be my daughter’s favourite.

8) Where is the Green Sheep? - Mem Fox, Judy Horacek (2006)

Here is the blue sheep, and here is the red sheep. Here is the bath sheep, and here is the bed sheep. But where is the green sheep? The simple syntax and wonderful metre make this a perfect story to read to infants and also as a first reader for four and five year olds.

“Stanley Paste”, by Aaron Blabey. Penguin

9) Stanley Paste - Aaron Blabey (2009)

Stanley Paste is small. Really small. And he hates it. But when a new girl arrives at school, Stanley learns that perhaps being small is not so bad after all. A sublime and memorable story that teaches young people about standing tall and celebrating diversity.

10) Diary of a Wombat - Jackie French and Bruce Whatley (2003)

Diary of a Wombat depicts the cheeky antics of Mothball, “a wombat with attitude”. This wombat leads a very busy and demanding life. She wrestles unknown creatures, runs her own digging business, and even trains her humans. This book has attained cult status and has been used for several subversive send ups.

Join the conversation

18 Comments sorted by

  1. Kristiqn Uzunchev

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Hello,

    Great article.

    I was wondering what to buy for Christmas for my kids.

    These books looks good, but i decided to buy this one book from Natalie Tinti.

    natalietinti.com

    Best regards

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  2. Lucy

    logged in via Twitter

    I love the story and the art in Fox, but would be afraid to give it to someone else's child because (as I remember it at least) the story is a little bit macabre. Do you think this would be a problem?

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    1. Nicholas Reece

      Public Policy Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Lucy

      Hi Lucy, I agree that Fox is a little macabre. That is one reason why it is a challenging story for children. It also helps make it a great book. For extreme macabre try the Brothers Grimm or most of the folklore fairy tales.

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  3. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    Graeme Base - what a genius!

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  4. Stephen Dixon

    Digital video officer

    Possum magic? Gawd what a load of drivel that book is. A grandma possum goes looking for dinky-di-trew-blew Aussie cliches to feed to her youngster to make her uninvisible. If crocodile Dundee is your idea of a probing insight into the nuances of the Australian psyche, well yeah, this book is for your sprog, good luck to you.

    Otherwise, check out some Australian authors that don't just recycle this tired old drivel, like the brilliant Brian Banana Duck Sunshine Yellow http://tinyurl.com/d24s9hq or Maisy Moo and Invisible Lucy or anything by Chris McKimmie.

    In a different vein, Belonging by Jeannie Baker. http://booko.com.au/works/757988 Told without words this story of urban change is detailed enough to warrant extended viewing by children from a young age, and unlike Mem berloody Fox's pile of twaddle it actually relates to the real experience of kids in Australia today. And again any of her books are recommended if you want to feed your kids more than intellectual junk food.

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    1. Stephen Dixon

      Digital video officer

      In reply to Stephen Dixon

      And don't get me started on "where is the pointless sheep". The up side of this annoying little number is that if you don't want your kids to be disappointed by literature then it's all up from there. This is as bad as it gets, kids. If my kids ask me to read this to them I just suggest that they go out to the shed and find one of those big screwdrivers and a hammer and pound it into my eye sockets, because it's a lot more fun than reading this badly written, badly illustrated book one.. more.. time.

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    2. Jim KABLE

      teacher

      In reply to Stephen Dixon

      I would never suggest any child read Stephen DIXON - what an angry clever man he is!

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  5. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Haha, yes, I agree entirely!

    I raised my kids on The Magic Pudding, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, the rest of it . . .

    . . . say no more . . .

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  6. Race Mathews

    Senior Research Fellow (retired 1998), doctoral candidate at University of Divinity

    How about an spot of resurrection? Australian writer H.C.F. Morant's ‘Whirlaway’ featured an eleven year old heroine, Helen, who set out on her adventures in the company of her pet koaia, Tirri, and WhirlawaY himself, who was a friendly sunbeam. A hidden lifl in the cellar of her newly-occupied family home carried them downwards through successive geological strata and backwards in time, to the dawn of life in the Archaeozoic Era or "Age of Oldest Things". The return journey took place by a series…

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  7. marianne doczi

    logged in via Twitter

    Pleeeeeeeease, can we just get over the fact that we now have a superior alternative to wood pulp with which to share stories. To write a review of children's books that disparages digital technology is nostalgia triumphing over reality, and functionality. Imagine, if you can, a parent and child reading a story (yes, let's focus on content) on a tablet. The content can now be "manufactured" in much more dynamic forms. The characters can move, talk, sing. Landscape can 'rustle', animals can 'slink', 'clomp' etc. child and parent can react to the technology in a way that magnifies the value of the language and the visuals. With a touch screen, a child can choose parts they particularly like and revisit them. Let's hope it's not too long before content creators make stories for little children that stimulate and nurture their curiosity, imagination and cognitive skills.

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    1. John Pike

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to marianne doczi

      Books already "stimulate and nurture (children's) curiosity, imagination and cognitive skills". This is not an either/or situation and I'd suggest that a family unable to afford an iPad for their one-year-old might be able to afford a couple of books (maybe even the copies of these ones we've donated to local charities).
      Technology is wonderful (my children have been privileged enough to have had access to audio books and now to an iPad and Kindle Fire) but I also read a pretty good 'slink' or 'clomp' and I know they can imagine one.

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    2. marianne doczi

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to marianne doczi

      Hmm, I don't think I am saying it's an "either/or situation". What I was reacting to was this statement:
      " To fill a young mind with a lasting sense of wonder and teach a child the joy of reading makes a picture book among the most valuable gift you can give.

      Yet this year’s Christmas stockings seem more likely to be filled with electronic devices and other digital distractions."

      To call tablets that can carry such enriching content "digital distractions" is a nonsense…

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    3. Steve Drummond

      Retired (self funded)

      In reply to marianne doczi

      My granddaughter and I watch a lot of Youtube clips - many are visual presentations of famous children's books. If there is one that she likes, we go and buy the actual book.

      Youtube also has some excellent learn to read resources, in particular, many versions of phonetic alphabet (pleeeeease just get over how to pronounce "Z").

      When she is ready to develop the pictures in her head from reading, she will no doubt acquire her own ebook reader, just like everyone else in the family.

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  8. Keith Thomas

    Retired

    Glad to see someone prick the Possum Magic balloon!

    At least Mem Fox is a successful author, not an opportunistic celebrity like Kevin Rudd and Sarah Fergusson who think merely being well known and somewhat immature means they can knock up a children's book or two. They are not the only people to write third-rate books for children.

    Sadly, too, so many people without either artistic talent or an understanding for the story and the process of an adult reading to a child are allowed to illustrate…

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  9. Beth Wright

    logged in via Twitter

    my kids (a boy and a girl) were generally not that keen on Mem Fox with the notable exception of 'Wombat Divine' which was popular all year round not just at Christmas. Jackie French's humour made all her books much loved. The Possum Creek Series by Dan Vallely with its silly rhyming text was also very popular with my kids.

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  10. Michael Bailes

    logged in via Facebook

    Nice article, sorry you have attracted so many grumps
    I love "Mulga Bill's Bicycle."
    This classic picture book sees Banjo Patterson's poem brought to rip-roaring life by Kilmeny and Deborah Niland
    Boys and girls enjoy it equally and are utterly engrossed by its
    dynamic poetry and wonderful illustrations. The build up to the climax
    absolutely belts along and the inevitability of Bill's fate holds everyone spellbound. The colour, movement and sense of fun coupled
    with the bush background make the book an absolutely delightful shared experience for both reader and listener.

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    1. Nicholas Reece

      Public Policy Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Michael Bailes

      I love that book as well. I really struggled to get the list down to 10 so for good measure my original draft had another five very honourable mentions:

      You will pleased to know that Mulga Bill came in at number 11. Here is the full list:

      11. Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, AB "Banjo" Paterson, Deborah and Kilmeny Niland (ills) (1973)

      12. John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks (ill) (1977)

      13. Who Sank The Boat?, Pamela Allen (2007)

      14. Greetings from Sandy Beach, Bob Graham (1990)

      15. You'll Wake the Baby!, Catherine Jinks and Andrew McLean (ill) (2000)

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