Annelies Judson shares her thoughts on four very different—but equally vibrant—picture books to hit the shelves.
The Littlest Lifeguard, by Vanessa Hatley-Owen, illustrated by Lisa Allen
The Littlest Lifeguard is a lighthearted look at how the smallest of us can help with big things…in our own little ways. Those who have read Vanessa Hatley-Owen’s other two books (When Dad Came Home and Farewell, Anahera) will see in this book a more humorous side to her writing. This little lifeguard manages to break, tangle and knock over various beach equipment in their efforts to help the big lifeguards in their work. When the crew goes out for a rescue, the left-behind littlie finds that their help is most needed for first aid and friendship on the beach, and the implied message at the end is that everyone has something to contribute to the functioning of a team.
The message here is lovely, and certainly one that many children can relate to. The actual story, however, doesn’t feel as relatable. Surf Lifesaving, especially in New Zealand, is a respected and important job, and even junior lifeguarding is taken very seriously. The idea that a small child would be so close to the genuine action of a lifeguarding team doesn’t sit quite right. Children’s books don’t have to represent reality, of course, but the book chooses to illustrate a rescue, which pulls the storyline firmly into the realism camp. Also, the importance of water safety and adult supervision is drummed into both children and adults in Aotearoa, so the idea of a book where a child gets to wander around helping other seemingly unsupervised children beside a dangerous surf beach feels like a misstep from the publishers.
Lisa Allen’s pastel-toned illustrations are in keeping with the gentle tone of the book. The shading and line work is reminiscent of children’s drawings, and work to reinforce the idea of the small child trying to help out. Together, it makes for a nice simple story—if one that might require a few adult reminders about the importance of water safety.
The Littlest Lifeguard
By Vanessa Hatley-Owen
Illustrated by Lisa Allen
Published by Upstart Books
Nana’s Baking Day, by Marie Munro, illustrated by Rachel Doragh
Nana’s Baking Day follows three children in the kitchen with their grandmother, all helping to bake (and taste!) the various treats that their Nana makes. It is written in rhyming couplets in English, and prose in Māori. The English text does suffer a little from some awkward rhythm and turns of phrase, but is generally very readable. The final six pages are recipes for the treats in the book, a set of helpful te reo phrases for the kitchen, and conversation starters for adults baking with kids.
Marie Munro and Rachel Doragh published the book Nana’s Shed in 2017, and the success of this first title has led to the creation of an independent publishing company that now has five books in the Nana series, as well as five other books. This is a great local success story, and as they note on their website, the books are produced and published here in Aotearoa, which is both unusual and impressive in a competitive children’s book market. Even better, almost all their books are completely bilingual, thanks to the translation and ongoing partnership with Piripi Walker (Ngāti Raukawa), who has worked in broadcasting and writing for over 40 years.
The design of the books does leave something to be desired. In what may be an effort to be equitable between the two languages, or may be an editorial oversight, the order of the Māori and English changes on each page. Combined with the colour choices for each language, which are difficult to distinguish, especially in low light, it makes the reading experience less fluid than it should be.
Personally I also don’t like the illustrations, which appear to be stylised photos that are edited to appear more like drawings. This is a quibble I have had since the first edition of Nana’s Shed, because it gives the human and animal characters an odd, almost creepy quality, and ironically also means that the characters don’t look consistent from page to page. This may bother other people less, and the ongoing success of these books suggests that this is true. And on the plus side, for people like me, there’s also an audiobook version available—another nice touch from this team.
Nana’s Baking Day
By Marie Munro
Illustrated by Rachel Doragh
Translations by Piripi Walker
Published by Nana’s Shed Books
Chugga Tugga Tugboat, by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Sarah Wilkins
The team behind Crane Guy is back in the driver’s seat with this new book about the many different jobs of a tugboat. Like Crane Guy, the book is in a larger-than usual size, which gives plenty of space for the spectacular illustrations of Sarah Wilkins. Her pictures are full of vitality and movement, from the dominating rolling waves, the blowing sails, to the huge and imposing cruise ship and tanker. The juxtaposition of the expansive outdoor scenes with a small child inside a room, watching and waiting for the tugboat to come back—and a person who appears to be their mother and the captain of the boat to arrive home—is beautifully managed.
The author, Sally Sutton, is amazing at onomatopoeia (as seen in her Construction series, among other things). Her text here does not do her skills justice. The line splish splosh / wish wash / toot toot toot is a refrain across the book, which is fine but not outstanding, and pretty repetitive considering the variety in her other books. The text is also a little limp. It didn’t race along or pull me in like her writing usually does.
Ultimately, the book will likely be successful, because these two are known and award-winning names, who can bank on a captive audience from Crane Guy, and from other projects independent of each other. And as I say, the illustrations are superb. However, I don’t think it quite hits the high heights that we might have expected from this collaboration.
Chugga Tugga Tugboat
By Sally Sutton
Illustrated by Sarah Wilkins
Published by Puffin
Bad Hair Day, by John Phillips, illustrated by Jennifer Jamieson
The front cover of this book indicates that it’s “from the viral TikTok song”, which will be rather a surprise to anyone who has attended a New Zealand school assembly in the past fifteen years, where the song has been a long-standing staple. The reason for this—other than that “viral TikTok song” is a way cooler and more appealing promo than “you’ve heard your kids sing it out of tune every Friday afternoon for years”—is that this book has been published by a UK-based publishing house. It’s unusual for an Aotearoa author to get traction overseas, especially for a book not first published here, but that’s the magic of the internet, folks.
I have a soft spot for John Phillips’ lyrics, which are humorous and memorable, and unlike many songs written for children, have a good storyline. Essentially, the main character wakes up with bed hair, tries to fix their hair but makes it worse, accidentally turns their hair green, and then goes to school only to find out that it’s school photos day. If you’re familiar with the song, it’s very hard to read the book without automatically having the tune in your head, but I made a valiant effort, and from what I can tell the book stands up even if you don’t sing it. The rhythm and rhyme are good and the words flow.
Jennifer Jamieson’s illustrations are also great. They are bright and captivating, and even have a bit of added humour at the end with all the characters illustrated sporting wild hairstyles. There is a good amount of diversity in the background characters, including one with vitiligo, a rarely-represented condition in picture books. I dream of a day where we see more of this representation in main characters, but I’m not sure that a book of a viral TikTok song is necessarily the place to wave that banner.
All up, it’s a book that’s destined to appeal to any child who’s ever left assembly humming “Bad Hair Day”. If my experience is anything to go by, that’s practically every New Zealander under 25.
Bad Hair Day
By John Phillips
Illustrated by Jennifer Jamieson
Published by Quarto Publishing
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.