Reviews: Five New Picture Books

Fiona Giles reviews four books which cover learning numbers with tūī, sharing new words with siblings, a creative retelling of a fairytale featuring tardigrades, and a Ferrari-inspired story about dreaming big. Annelies Judson reviews the fifth: the latest in Dawn McMillan’s BUM books.

Ring Ting Tūī, by Elena de Roo & Paul Beavis (Penguin Random House)

This quirky, chirpy picture book combines rhythmic script, read-aloud fun and terrific illustrations, all under the guise of learning the numbers one to 10 and some fun facts about tūī. 

Rhyming picture books have gone a bit stale of late, as all too many fall into the egregious trap of letting the rhyme lead the story, leading to a poorly-crafted tale. However, De Roo is an accomplished poet and author who takes her craft seriously, and it shows. The cadence has a wonderful rhythm and rhyme, filled with alliteration and onomatopoeia, which compels you to read aloud. The text features fun-to-say descriptive words like ‘jostling’, ‘spying’ and ‘trilling’. It’s hard not to infuse your reading with expression.

Spread from Ring Ting Tūī!

Some adults may be put off by Beavis’ style. These tūī are not “pretty”, nor is the kōwhai tree they’ve landed on. Beavis treats us to a visual feast involving knobbles, gnarls, wrinkles and a most unaesthetic wētā. But that is precisely what’s so appealing about his style to many children and adults, myself included.

Chaotic, messy and rude, but not, in essence, bad, the birds are imbued with a mischievousness impossible not to enjoy. It’s also fun finding the wētā on each spread. The little bug is relaxing on a branch when its peace is disturbed by the feeding frenzy. It grows increasingly alarmed until peace reigns once more—a narrative thread told in pictures that further engages the reader.

Spread from Ring Ting Tūī!

This is a unique kiwi spin on learning the numbers one to 10. Though particularly appealing to New Zealanders, the story of birds fighting for space on a branch is one children anywhere will appreciate.  

This concise, well-paced counting book will be sure to draw children’s attention with de Roo’s rhythmical text just as much as with Beavis’ expressive, bold and frankly hilarious illustrations: a winning combination.

Ring Ting Tūī!

By Elena de Roo

Illustrated by Paul Beavis

Published by Penguin Random House

RRP: $21.00

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The Very Best Words, by Erin Munro & Sarah Trolle (Little Moa Press)

In a word: adorable.

The Very Best Words packs a lot into its few pages. Specifically: a laundry list of interesting words (many of which will be new to young listeners and all of which are fun to read aloud), the months of the year, and the beautiful bond between a big sister and a baby brother.

This is author Erin Munro’s debut book. A content and copywriter by career, her passion for words and skill as a wordsmith is palpable throughout. Written with deceptively simple prose that has a lyrical, almost musical, flow to it, the story depicts Emma, who wants her new baby brother to have only the best words when he learns to speak. She collects words on a different theme for each month of the year. Rhyming words one month, musical another, and silly words in yet another month. All involve places and concepts that will be familiar to a young child.

Page from The Very Best Words

The months of the year do not correlate strongly either to the weather depicted in the illustrations, or in the words Emma collects, meaning this book works both for those living north and south of the equator. 

Illustrator and primary school teacher Sarah Trolle evokes a soft whimsy and an enticing love-filled world on every page. Her gentle, sketchy style includes just enough detail to hold one’s interest, including the family cat and blue stuffed toy that make regular appearances—it’s fun to find them and see what they are up to. 

This sweet story of sibling love is told in lyrical prose and accompanied by cosy illustrations, producing a picture book just right for cuddling up with someone to share the joy of language together.

The Very Best Words

By Erin Munro

Illustrated by Sarah Trolle

RRP: $21.99

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The Three Little Tardigrades, by Sandra Fay (Macmillan)

A retelling of The Three Little Pigs that succeeds in being both educational and charming. 

This is Sandra Fay’s second book. While the first featured the legendary Mongolian death worm, this one features the very real tardigrade. 

You might think the tardigrade makes an odd choice for the focus of a picture book. For one thing, they are microscopic, and for another, they have eight stubby legs with long claws. But having read The Three Little Tardigrades, I’d have to say you’d be wrong. 

Spread from The Three Little Tardigrades

This delightfully weird tale is a modern twist on a familiar classic. It’s great fun to read aloud, as the prose has a good rhythm to it and some great touches of humour. The use of font and text size, such as the larger type whenever the Big Hairy Wolf Spider is mentioned, further enhances the storytelling. 

When Mama tardigrade decides it’s time for her three boys to leave their droplet of water and make their way in the big wide world, they choose three unique locations, all depicted boldly, so different from the pastoral idyll of their former home.

Fay’s art style uses potato prints plus drips and splatters of paint to create textures, patterns and images, with lines drawn for detail. It makes for a graphical style with texture and depth that pulls the reader in. Fun details, like the factor 9999 sunscreen, add to the humour. Mama tardigrade and her three sons are depicted charmingly, with big, wide eyes to match their surprised mouth (did you know they have circular mouths?), light brown bodies with wispy little claws, and even hair (pink for mama tardigrade). 

Spread from The Three Little Tardigrades

An added bonus, Fay liberally sprinkles tardigrade and other scientific facts throughout, with a fact sheet and glossary at the back. It’s a shame, then, that one of the three little tardigrades chooses to live on an active volcano, when later it’s explained that real-life tardigrades do not, in fact, enjoy lava any more than humans do. (Although lava itself is too hot for tardigrades (aka water bears), there are some species that do live in active lava fields, and precocious Octonauts fans will be sure to tell you about their habitat near undersea lava tubes!)

This is only a minor quibble, however. Any science or bug-loving child will delight in this story. In fact, I can see a series of fairy tales retold with other weird and wonderful creatures doing quite well.

The Three Little Tardigrades

By Sandra Fay

Published by Macmillan

RRP: $37.99

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The Boy Who Wasn’t Scared to Dream, by Mustafa “Mussie” Sheikh & Ishana Ratti (Self-published)

Rap artist and first-time picture book author Mustafa Sheikh (aka Lil Mussie) is a young man dedicated to improving outcomes for young people. This story is about a little boy who wants to become the greatest race car driver. The proceeds from book sales will go to Bread Charity, which develops programmes to help children in poverty.

At its core this is a story about believing in yourself, never giving up on your dreams and working hard. All admirable values. But as the main character, Billy, never actually becomes the greatest race car driver, the message falls flat.

Page from The Boy Who Wasn’t Scared to Dream

The text also has flaws: the tense jumps from present to past and back again, the story is choppy, and the writing lacks consistency. The strong and comical opening, featuring the sleeping Billy dreaming of winning a car race, appealed to me greatly. But this was followed with several pages of Billy getting ready for school, which depleted my enthusiasm. Billy’s story would lose nothing by jumping straight to the next plot point, at school. 

Illustrator Ishana Ratti has a great way with colour. Her translucent watercolour-style backgrounds overlaid with soft scribbles, uneven lines and crosshatching lend warmth to the book. Colour choices for these backgrounds complement the tone of the page; for example darker colours at night and when Billy feels down, and brighter colours for happier moments. But, jarringly, one spread features artwork in an entirely different style.

Page from The Boy Who Wasn’t Scared to Dream

The author note in the book doesn’t share the name of the charity proceeds will go to (which is Bread Charity), nor the elements of the tale that are based on a true story, as stated on the front cover—both things readers would probably like to know. A full eight pages—in all caps and in a font that is quite difficult to read—are devoted to a message from Ferrari chief design officer Flavio Manzoni. His words will likely appeal to adults more than to youngsters, encouraging them to support their children’s passions. That Sheikh was able to obtain both permission from Ferrari to illustrate their sports cars and a thoughtfully-written afterword from Manzoni is a great coup and ought to feature on the front cover as a drawcard.

The Boy Who Wasn’t Scared to Dream

By Mustafa “Mussie” Sheikh

Illustrated by Ishana Ratti

RRP: $33.00

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My Dad’s Runaway BUM!, by Dawn McMillan (Oratia)

Dawn McMillan must surely be one of New Zealand’s most prolific children’s writers. This book is the eighth in the New Bum! series alone, which is more books than many authors manage to get published in a lifetime. The ongoing success of this series is testament to how much these books are enjoyed. I would venture to suggest that they’re probably enjoyed more by children than adults, but who are picture books ultimately for if not the children laughing uproariously at a man being chased down the street by his own backside?

Spread from My Dad’s Runaway BUM!

The storyline in My Dad’s Runaway Bum! does leave something to be desired. The appearance—and subsequent, sudden disappearance—of the police has no impact on the storyline, which I found a little odd. The fact that said bum runs away and then comes back again with no real explanation for why was similarly underwhelming. I mean, I know it’s a story about a bum that comes off, so it doesn’t need to be high literature, but I prefer even silly stories to at least be logical, and this felt lacking.

Fortunately, these aspects of the story didn’t impact the enjoyment of my young test readers, who found the arrival of the police hilarious, and didn’t care that an anthropomorphised bum came home of its own accord—which is fair enough, really.

Spread from My Dad’s Runaway BUM! 

Ross Kinnaird’s illustrations, and in particular the facial expressions of all the characters, make the book visually appealing and add a touch of extra humour. He’s illustrated so many of McMillan’s books, not just this series, and their two styles work really well together.

All in all, I’m not putting it forward for any awards for literature, but it certainly deserves a medal for literal laugh-out-loud humour for kids.

My Dad’s Runaway BUM!

By Dawn McMillan

Illustrated by Ross Kinnaird

Published by Oratia Media

RRP: $21.00

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Fiona Giles

Fiona is a freelance writer from Ireland, now based in New Zealand. She enjoys tea, chocolate and dancing. She lives in Canterbury where she can be variously found working on her novel, reading books and walking her dog.

Annelies Judson

Annelies Judson writes book reviews and poetry for children, among other things. Her many loves include cooking, cricket, science and the em-dash. She can be found on Twitter/X and BlueSky @babybookdel, and on Instagram @babybookdeltest.