Reviews: Four Picture Books

School librarian Zac McCallum reads and reviews four recent Scholastic picture books. There’s something here for fans of vehicles, cats, dogs, and sleeping (it’s possible the fans of sleeping might be adults).

As a school librarian at a full primary school I am always on the lookout for great read-aloud picture books. Each week I read picture books to all of the classes that come through my library, from New Entrants to Year 8. Some picture books will only appeal to the juniors, while others will have a subtle humour that only the seniors will pick up. The best picture books are the ones that I can read to any of the classes and get a reaction from the kids, but also not get sick of reading myself. 

Here is a new batch of Aotearoa picture books from Scholastic New Zealand, which will appeal to a range of ages and readers.

Moto Mike the Motorbike (Nee Naw and Friends), by Deano Yipadee, illustrated by Bruce Potter (Scholastic NZ)

I’ll start by saying that I am really not a fan of picture books that have been written and illustrated from the base of a song. My biggest issue with these books is that, unless you listen to the song at the same time as reading the book, they just don’t work. I first read Moto Mike the Motorbike without the song and I just kept stumbling over the text. There is no rhythm that carries you along. The refrain of the main character, Moto Mike, makes it seem like he has a stutter, ‘MM-mm-mm-Moto Mike, the mm-mm-motorbike, on just two wheels, I can twist and swerve.’ As this is a new book in the Nee Naw and Friends series, Nee Naw makes an appearance, and Nee Naw helps Moto Mike to save the day. 

I am sure that Moto Mike and the Motorbike will have fans amongst those vehicle-mad preschoolers, and Nee Naw fans will pick it up, but you’ll need to make sure you have the song on hand to make it through the book. Bruce Potter has taken over the illustrating of Deano Yipadee’s books, but he has kept a similar style to Paul Beavis’ illustrations that many kids have come to love.

Moto Mike the Motorbike (Nee Naw and Friends)

By Deano Yipadee

Illustrated by Bruce Potter

Published by Scholastic

RRP: $22.00

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How to Be a Cat, by Juliette MacIver & Carla Martell (Scholastic NZ)

Juliette MacIver and Carla Martell’s first collaboration, Duck Goes Meow, won the Picture Book Category of the 2023 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and has been a firm favourite in my school library. I wanted to love How To Be a Cat, but it left me underwhelmed. Duck and their cat family is back again, with Mama Cat teaching Duck how to be a cat. Duck gets taught how to wash, climb, pounce and eat, but Duck always has a slightly different spin on it. When Duck starts to question whether they really are a cat, Mama reassures them and they snuggle up together.

My main niggle about the book is that I felt that you needed to have read Duck Goes Meow to fully appreciate the story. One of the things I love about reading picture books aloud is seeing and hearing the reaction of the kids, but there wasn’t much of a reaction to this book (unlike Duck Goes Meow, which made the kids cackle). 

How to Be a Cat still has the cute factor that younger children especially will love. Martell’s illustrations are simple, with bold background colours that put the characters front and centre. 

How to Be a Cat

By Juliette MacIver

Illustrated by Carla Martell

Published by Scholastic NZ

RRP: $22.00

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Sleep is for Babies, by Emily McDowall & Julia Hegetusch (Scholastic NZ)

This is the perfect book for snuggling up and reading before bed with preschoolers. It is full of after-dark adventures with creatures of the night. When George’s father puts him to bed, George decides that he does not want to sleep, ‘Sleep is for babies! He thought. Not for me!’ George then creeps outside into the night and plays with the creatures. He jumps at moths with the cat and showers the possum with leaves. The story feels very Kiwi, with similar bouncy rhythms to Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary books. The illustrations have a soft, muted style that feels just right for bedtime reading, and the moonlight shines on the pages.

I felt that the illustrator, Julia Hegetusch, missed an opportunity to embrace the Aotearoa flavour. Native flora was incorporated into the illustrations but these seemed muted. For example, the plants which appear to be flax have rounded leaves. There were a lot of mushrooms in the illustrations, which detracted from the native fauna. One aspect of the final illustration, which my wife noticed, was that the blanket that the father and child are wrapped in doesn’t feature any of the animals from the story. It would have been a nice little detail to have the ruru, possum, cat, or frog on the blanket, leading the reader to wonder if George was imagining his night-time adventures. 

The new entrant kids at my school enjoyed Sleep is for Babies, but it didn’t appeal to the older children. I think it is probably aimed more at preschoolers, as the story and illustrations do have a snuggly feel. 

Sleep is for Babies

By Emily McDowall

Illustrated by Julia Hegetusch

Published by Scholastic NZ

RRP: $22.00

Buy now

Watson the Detective Dog, by Susan Brocker & Jenny Cooper (Scholastic NZ)

This was by far the most appealing and engaging of these picture books for the kids at my school. It is a true story that was inspired by the conservation work of the real-life detective dog. Named after Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, Watson is a dog who has been amazing at finding things ever since he was a puppy. After a conservation worker suggests that Watson would make a great conservation dog, his owner, Jon, starts training him. Watson learns to sniff out whitebait eggs and to stay away from native birds. Watson continues to hone his skills, and even though he fails his test, he and Jon will keep trying.

Watson the Detective Dog is another wonderful addition to Scholastic’s ‘A New Zealand Story’ series, all illustrated by Jenny Cooper. Susan Brocker is a skilled storyteller who takes true events and weaves them into a great story. She makes the story of Watson entertaining as well as informative. There is a lot of scope for discussion and discovery with this book, and I’m certain that teachers could base a whole unit of work around the topics in it. It touches on conservation work, dogs with jobs, native species, and sustainability. It is also just a fun read, with appealing illustrations by Jenny Cooper. There were choruses of ‘awwwww’ from the kids every time I turned the page and they saw Watson doing something cute.

Watson the Detective Dog is not only the favourite of the kids at my school, but also the favourite of my nine-year-old (and her parents).

Watson the Detective Dog

By Susan Brocker

Illustrated by Jenny Cooper

Published by Scholastic NZ

RRP: $22.00

Buy now

Zac McCallum

Zac McCallum is a school librarian at Te Kura O Te Tauawa Halswell School in Ōtautahi, Christchurch.  Prior to becoming a school librarian, he worked in public and academic libraries and as a children’s bookseller. Zac is a huge supporter of New Zealand children’s literature and our many wonderful authors and illustrators, and his role on the Storylines Management Committee enables him to be a part of this supportive community.