Book Reviews: Five NZ Picture Books

It’s all things animals in five recent NZ picture books – from monsters to dinosaurs to (toy) dogs and more. Thalia Kehoe Rowden gives us the lowdown in this batch of reviews.

The Grizzled Grist Does Not Exist! by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Sarah Davis

Juliette MacIver is so far ahead of the pack when it comes to perfect, lip-smacking rhyming books that you nearly have to run to keep up with her. The Grizzled Grist does not Exist! features the same hilarious class as the pair’s award-winning That’s Not a Hippopotamus!, and it’s a delight to see them all in action again.

This time they’re on a hazardous wilderness trip and clever Liam realises quickly that they’ll need to be careful of a sneaky monster who is trying to trap them. Sarah Davis’ illustrations are top-notch, as usual, not only drawing us into the clan of quirky kids, but also telling essential parts of the Grist plot. 

Juliette MacIver is so far ahead of the pack when it comes to perfect, lip-smacking rhyming books

Some picture books are a delicious snack, but this one is a full gourmet dinner. There are extra jokes on most pages and the endpapers, and the class photo at the beginning encourages extra flipping back and forth on your next reading. All five kids I showed this to, in separate sittings, then went on to re-read That’s Not a Hippopotamus – so maybe this is more like a two-course meal. Can’t wait for a third so we can add dessert to the proceedings.

The Grizzled Grist Does Not Exist!

Written by Juliette MacIver

Illustrated by Sarah Davis

Gecko Press

RRP: $29.99

We Saw a Spinosaurus, by Kyle Mewburn, illustrated by Daron Parton

What a delightful read! Kyle Mewburn’s latest picture book is a bouncy rhymer with fun wordplay that ensures you’ll all be giggling throughout. It’s impossible to read it aloud without smiling, and, very probably, putting on a bit of a silly voice:

‘We were trying not to snorus 

(sometimes school is such a borus)

when we heard a growling chorus 

floating down the corridorus.’

The average four-year-old can name more dinosaur species than the average university student, so extra points for producing a dinosaur book for pre-schoolers where an ankylosaurus and a scutosaurus get the spotlight. 

As well as being a fun and funny story of three kids spotting a dinosaur party happening in their school, this is an example of a publication team effort really paying off. Mewburn’s writing is great, and the conceit of adding ‘-us’ to the end of each line means she gets away jauntily with the odd bit of slap-dash rhyming or scansion.

This is an example of a publication team effort really paying off

Daron Parton’s dinosaurs look like gorgeous Eric Carle animals who are having more fun than usual – and it’s great to see a realistically diverse team of kids in a recognisable primary school (though I did find the children’s faces oddly expressionless throughout – unlike the charismatic dinosaurs). The vibrant, varied, and uncluttered design from Leon Mackie amplifies both pictures and words for an extra bit of punch. The result is a really lovely book that will be a hit both for children and their adults who are bound to face demands of ‘Read it again!’

We Saw A Spinosaurus

Written by Kyle Mewburn

Illustrated by Daron Parton


RRP: $21.99

My Real Dog, by Emily Joe

What do you do when you know you need a dog of your very own, but your parents are full of excuses and reasons why you can’t have one?

The ‘real’ dog of this story is a toy, but it’s clear that it can do most things a breathing, woofing pet would do – and perhaps it’s even better behaved than a barky dog!

A dog book is always an appealing prospect, and the inside covers of this one are very enticing, with drawings of all creatures great and small – so you and your dog-loving small person can admire the shapes and sizes, and perhaps even identify all the pooches that match the ones you know in your own world. 

The inside covers of this book are very enticing, with drawings of all creatures great and small

My Real Dog is written in rhyming couplets that aren’t always perfect. There are a few too many lines that are slightly forced, or take too many words to make a point, just to fill out the rhyme scheme. It probably would be a more engaging book if written in prose, as the rhyming makes it drag out a little. But it’s a fun idea and many small dog-people will enjoy it – especially if they, too, have mean old parents who won’t let them have a real dog of their own!

My Real Dog

By Emily Joe

Beatnik Publishing

RRP: $30

Bedtime Blast-off! by Mark Sommerset, illustrated by Pradyut Chatterjee

Fans of the best-selling Baa Baa Smart Sheep and I Love Lemonade will be delighted to see a third installment of farmyard toilet pranks in Bedtime Blast-off.

The story starts out a little slow, with five pages of preliminary greetings between our smart sheep and the tricksy Quirky Turkey. But the pace picks up nicely with fun tongue-twisters, as Quirky Turkey tries to persuade our sleepy sheep friend to drink a suspicious ‘hot chocolate’:

“I have something for you. Something tasty.”

“Something tasty?”

“Helps sleepy sheep sleep.”

“I’m a sleepy sheep!”

“Yes… a very sheepy sleep.”

QT’s sneaky campaign starts out predictably enough, but I laughed out loud when the suspicious sheep turns down the dodgy drink by claiming they’re…vegan. Then there are more twists as the tricker becomes the trickee, ahead of a satisfying conclusion. 

Bedtime Blast-off!

Written by Mark Sommerset

Illustrated by Pradyut Chatterjee

Dreamboat Books

RRP: $29.99

The Story of Swoop, by Matt Owens, illustrated by Emma Gustafson

Most children will enjoy this homey real-life story of Firefighter Matt, who rescues and adopts a magpie. It’s a straightforward, familiar tale of human-animal interactions, initially told from Matt’s perspective. As Swoop grows up and starts exploring the world, we see things through her eyes, with the writer imagining how she figures out where she belongs. 

It’s a straightforward, familiar tale of human-animal interactions

Emma Gustafson’s illustrations place the story firmly in Aotearoa, with lush bush scenes, pōhutukawa-lined beaches, and monarch butterflies in the background. 

The Story of Swoop

Written by Matt Owens

Illustrated by Emma Gustafson


RRP: $21.99

Thalia Kehoe Rowden

Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a former co-editor of The Sapling, and a Wellington writer and human rights worker. She is passing on a family inheritance of book dependency to her two small children, and is delighted to be part of The Sapling, as it gives her even more excuses to read excellent children's books. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and ​at ​her parenting, spirituality and social justice website, Sacraparental.