Two New International Picture Books

Here are reviews of two new picture books that couldn’t be more different! One’s a whimsical story about refugees; the other’s a funky, funny book for new babies. What did our editor and reviewer Jane think of them? Read on.

WISP: A STORY OF HOPE by Zana Fraillon and illustrated by Grahame Baker Smith (Hachette)

It’s refreshing to come across a picture book about a serious, complex human issue that uses human characters in the illustrations, instead of hiding behind a metaphor of animals. Here, the issue is refugee camps, and bravo to the author, illustrator and publisher for tackling it. How do we explain who refugees are and how they are treated to primary school-age children?

In Wisp: A Story of Hope (Hachette), the answer lies in the title. It’s by showing that human resilience can sometimes be the most important part of survival. The protagonist, a boy named Idris, was presumably born in the refugee camp, where there are ‘rows of tents’, dirt (this is mentioned a lot), and fences: ‘A world full of people, but where everyone was alone.’

The book is written by Zana Fraillon, a multi-award-winning author of novels for children and teens, which focus on refugee characters (including The Bone Sparrow). The illustrations are by Graeme Baker Smith, who won the Kate Greenaway Medal for FArTHER.

While I appreciate the use of human characters to tell this story, the story still relies heavily on metaphor to get its message across. The ‘Wisp’ is a glow of light that Idris is the only one to notice at first. Then it travels around to the adults of the camp, who are inspired to remember happy memories of their lives – presumably pre-camp, which might bring up tricky questions like, ‘Why did they move to the camp, then, if they were happy before?’.

Idris, of course, can’t be inspired to remember happy times by the Wisp – so instead (spoiler alert) it fills him with hope for the future (‘Soon, it whispered … Someday.’). This just doesn’t feel convincing to me – is the message of the book ‘keep your chin up and things will turn out okay’? (The reality is that half of all refugees take longer than a decade to be resettled in a new home country after first fleeing their native homeland.) But this is a difficult topic to broach with this age-group, and this book is a good place to start.

I’m not a huge fan of the language in the book, which is trying hard to be poetic and magical (‘Idris gentlied the Wisp from the ground. He softlied away the dust and dirt and footprints.’ and ‘A swelling sea of rememberings twirled on the air and shimmered in the breeze.’), but as a whole, the text is very evocative and would be lovely as a read-aloud. The illustrations are unique, and full of mystery, light and dark. I’d recommend this book for school libraries and class discussions. 

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Wisp: A Story of Hope

By Zana Fraillon

Illustrated by Grahame Baker Smith

Published by Hachette

RRP: $29.99

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I’m usually sceptical when a review claims a children’s book is actually more for the parents than the kids, as often it means the reviewer undersells what children are capable of enjoying or comprehending – but I’m afraid I am making that very claim here, though it’s not a criticism!

Mo Willems is a master of simple graphic storytelling, which makes sense considering his earlier career as an Emmy Award-winning animator on Sesame Street. He’s the talent behind Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and its follow-ups, the ‘Elephant and Piggie’ books, and many more seriously funny picture books with little text but heaps of attitude.

This one’s not got his signature cartoon-style drawings and is designed more to look like an instruction leaflet or in-flight safety card.

It’s shamelessly engineered to wring sentimental, warm-fuzzy tears out of sleep-deprived new mums and dads – and a few laughs, too. The conceit feels a little one-note to me, and the style a little cold, and I haven’t feel hugely compelled to go back for loads of re-reads as I have with Willems’ others.

However, while it’s not going to mean much to their baby (or even to its siblings under the age of, say, ten), Welcome will be a great gift for design-loving parents-to-be. I’d suggest bookshops display it in their novelty/gift-book section rather than with the picture books for maximum sales.

One last thing. Can someone please come up with a substitute for the never-any-good reflective stuff that goes in kids’ books in an attempt at being a mirror? Because the current technology can’t do anyone’s sense of identity (or self-esteem) much good – though my nearly one-year-old used it to practise his kissing.


By Mo Willems

Published by Walker

RRP $28.00

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Jane Arthur

Jane Arthur co-owns and manages GOOD BOOKS, a small independent bookshop in Pōneke Wellington. She twice judged the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, in 2019 and 2020. Her debut poetry collection, Craven (VUP) won the Jessie Mackay Prize for best first book of poetry at the 2020 Ockham NZ Book Awards, and her second collection, Calamities!(THWUP) was longlisted for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the 2024 Ockham Awards. Her debut children's book, Brown Bird(PRH) is due for release in May 2024. Jane is also co-founder of The Sapling.