Book Reviews: Five New Zealand Picture Books

Rachel Moore reviews five new New Zealand picture books, which cover everything from the beauty and brutality of nature, to how to cope with anxiety and bullying.

The Promise of Puanga, by Kirsty Wadsworth and Munro Te Whata

It’s wonderful to see publishers embracing the multitude of Matariki stories that are out there in Te Ao Māori – we’re all richer for reading them. This new title from Scholastic is no exception; I had heard of the star Puanga but didn’t know its significance.

The story follows friends Hana and Puanga, who live on the West Coast. Winter often comes before the harvest has been fully collected, which means people go hungry through less fertile seasons. However, Puanga has hidden depths, and is prepared to come to the rescue…

Spread from The Promise of Puanga, by Kirsty Wadsworth and Munro Te Whata, used with permission.

This is a lovely story about friendship as well as introducing another star to the myths and legends around the Matariki constellation to an audience beyond its home rohe. The story was easy for my 5-7 year old students to follow, and they were highly engaged. The pictures are clear, expressive and vibrant, and I particularly enjoyed the image of the Atua Tāwhirimātea as a sky surfer.

The pictures are clear, expressive and vibrant, and I particularly enjoyed the image of the Atua Tāwhirimātea as a sky surfer.

This is a book that will likely find a place in every early childhood centre and school library, but should be welcomed onto home bookshelves too, for readers aged 5 and up.

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the promise of puanga: helper to whanau matariki

By Kirsty Wadsworth

Illustrated by Munro Te Whata

Published by Scholastic NZ

RRP: $19.00

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Stardust, by Ivana Mlinac and Porsche Tiavale (Little Love)

A girl feels alone and different. Her mother is in prison, and no one else understands what that feels like. Her mother sends her a letter, telling her that even though they’re far apart, they share the same sky … and that idea unlocks the girl’s hope and potential.

There’s such a lovely message to this story – it’s about empowering children, regardless of their circumstances. While the girl in the story has a mum in prison, the story is applicable universally: you are here, you are important, you have a place, you are seen.

…the story is applicable universally: you are here, you are important, you have a place, you are seen.

Spread from Stardust: We Always Share the Same Sky, reproduced with permission

My colleagues and I often discuss the increasing number of children we teach who are living with anxiety, and how to help them. Stories like Stardust, if discussed with a caring adult, can help children to develop a sense of safety and belonging.

The illustrations in Stardust are rich and vibrant, and very much of New Zealand, with lots of our native flora and fauna represented. At the back of the book are some excellent activities for parents/caregivers/teachers to do with children to foster an understanding of the children’s strengths, dreams and feelings.

I highly recommend this as a read-aloud for children aged 5 and up.

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stardust: we always share the same sky

By Ivana Mlinac

Illustrated by Porsche Tiavale

Published by Little Love

RRP $20.00

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Abigail and the Birth of the Sun, by Matthew Cunningham and Sarah Wilkins

Abigail has a big question – the sort of question that keeps you from focusing on doing much, the sort of question that keeps you awake at night. The sort of question that really needs an answer. To answer the question Abigail’s dad tells her the story of how the universe began, and what happened afterwards.

This book is an excellent primer for introducing children to the idea of the Big Bang in an easily understandable way (it works for adults too!). My students were absolutely fascinated by the concept of us all being made from stardust, and it was lovely to watch the wonder on their faces as I read the story.

Spread from Abigail and the Birth of the Sun, illustrated by Sarah Wilkins, used with permission

I love that Abigail’s dad is not too busy or distracted to answer her question in depth – in an ideal world we’d all be this type of caring adult more often. It’s a little message tucked away in the text for the adults – ‘be like Abigail’s dad’. With a world of information quite literally available at our fingertips, our standard response shouldn’t be ‘I don’t know’, but ‘Let’s find out!’ And with the promise of further books explaining big concepts to come, Matthew Cunningham books may become just as easy to reach for as a Google search.

The illustrations by Sarah Wilkins are lovely – clear, colourful and intricate. These are the sorts of illustrations that are crying out for an adult with an available lap, so a child can look closely and find all the little details.

I highly recommend Abigail and the Birth of the Sun for children aged 5 and up.

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abigail and the birth of the sun

By Matthew Cunningham

Illustrated by Sarah Wilkins

Published by Puffin

RRP $20.00

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Song of the River, by Joy Cowley and Kimberly Andrews (Gecko Press)

Joy Cowley is a national treasure. This book is incontrovertible proof. Song of the River is a new edition of a story written by Joy 25 years ago, with new illustrations by Kimberly Andrews. The tale is as fresh as any new release I’ve read this year.

Cam, a mountain boy, wishes he could see the sea. One day he follows a trickle of snow melt, and as he keeps exploring the trickle becomes a creek, then a stream, them a river, then a harbour … ’Oh no!’ exclaimed one of my six-year-old students. ‘I hope Cam doesn’t get lost!’

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Spread from Song of the River, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews, reproduced with permission

Spoiler alert – he doesn’t. But I defy you to not get lost in the lyrical language and the gorgeous illustrations, which seemed to me to tip their hat to travel posters from the 1940s and 50s while being totally fresh and engaging.

I defy you to not get lost in the lyrical language and the gorgeous illustrations…

Lots of children don’t understand how the environment works. I live and work in a beachside community, and while my students understand how beaches work, they know less about the journey of rivers – they’re sort of the opposite of mountain boy Cam. Books like this – a geography lesson hidden inside a lovely story – are a great introduction of the water cycle for primary-aged children. Highly recommended for children aged 5 and up.

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song of the river

By Joy Cowley

Illustrated by Kimberly Andrews

Published by Gecko Press

RRP $29.99

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Check out Kimberly’s process

Only Freaks Turn Things Into Bones, by Steff Green and Bree Roldán

Little Grim (Reaper) gets dropped off at his new school. Initially the other students are friendly, but Little Grim’s unfortunate gift for turning living things into dead things with a touch upsets the other children, and they ostracise him.

The story carries an important message about bullying, inclusion and diversity. This is a really important message; bullying is a real problem in New Zealand’s schools and workplaces, and picture books for children are one of the first lines of defence. With our devastatingly high mental health and suicide rates, we need to embrace every tool that comes our way to help others. Steff Green and Bree Roldán have added another tool to our tool kit.

Spread from Only Freaks Turn Things into Bones

After an initial read, I decided this wasn’t a book I felt comfortable reading to my Year 1 and 2 students, who range in age from 5 ½ to 7. With its gothic illustrations, focus on death-bringing as one of the defining characteristics of Little Grim, and use of language such as ‘freak’ and ‘weirdo’, I considered it too sophisticated for my students. (I know older children probably use these terms, but I don’t think my students do – and I certainly want to introduce or encourage them!) After doing some research in my staffroom, I came to the conclusion that the audience for this book is parents of children who are at 9 and older, with whom they can sit down and discuss the themes in the book.

When we discussed it further, we felt the book fell into the same category as movies such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline and The Corpse Bride – not movies we’d show to other people’s children due to their ‘dark’ nature, but that we’d watch with our own children when the time was right.

only freaks turn things into bones​

By Steff Green

Illustrated by Bree Roldán

Published by Publisher Obscura

RRP: $17.99

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Rachel Moore

Rachel Moore is a experienced primary school teacher who lives on the Kapiti Coast. Some of her earliest memories are of bed time stories read with her dad, and she has made it her mission to try to pass on her love of books to every child she meets. Her childhood literary heroes are Jo March, Lucy Pevensie, Matilda Wormwood and Elizabeth Bennet. When she grows up, Rachel hopes she'll be able to live in a house big enough for all her books.