• Sarah Forster

Book Reviews: New picture books from Aotearoa


It has been a phenomenal year for picture books from Aotearoa! Here's our last batch of reviews for 2020, courtesy of co-founder and editor Sarah Forster. Check out her fascinating thoughts on five of the latest fantastic titles to grace our local shelves.


The Good Old Looky Book, by Donovan Bixley (Hachette NZ)

If the title sounds familiar, that’s because this is the third in the Looky Book series, all of which have been bestsellers for Donovan Bixley and Hachette NZ. This time, Donovan has embedded a few things he’s learned with the Māui series into this beloved format, making it a welcome addition to the series.


All of the repeated elements of the book have been translated into te reo Māori for young readers in the endpapers, which is a wonderful touch. Donovan has always made the most of ‘Kiwiana’ and now he has the confidence to take it a step further, embracing Māori culture while gently moving away from the commonly-perceived version of what ‘Kiwiness’ is. Not that far though—there is still a hokey-pokey ice-cream on most spreads!


Spread from The Good Old Looky Book, by Donovan Bixley (Hachette NZ)

I really enjoy all the new takes on the puzzle pages he has become known for—with transfiguring moa hiding in native bush, and Haast’s eagles hunting them; a marae which mixes the old with the new, complete with a ban in the act of getting tatou on his bare bum (bums, tee hee!); and a hat tip to colonisation, as the waka cruises through the centre of a European sailing vessel and barters for new items.


One of my 8-year-old’s and my favourite spreads is an unexpected one – the maze. We had a philosophical conversation about what the ‘best treasure’ was here. His brother would probably go for the 24 carrots, he would go for the ice-cream, while the adult perception says go for the gold.


Donovan has always made the most of ‘Kiwiana’ and now he has the confidence to take it a step further, embracing Māori culture while gently moving away from the commonly-perceived version of what ‘Kiwiness’ is.


Spread from The Good Old Looky Book, by Donovan Bixley (Hachette NZ)

The book also has a spread on the pink and white terraces, which does some pretty darn clever things with reflections, and almost every featured animal (except those on the page where the intruders come in) is native to Aotearoa.


Donovan is Aotearoa’s best when it comes to friendly, bold illustrations, with details galore. Grab the Good Old Looky Book and add it to your Christmas stash for your curious 3-8 year old.



The Good Old Looky Book


By Donovan Bixley

Published by Hachette NZ RRP$25.00

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Aroha Knows, by Rebekah Lipp, illustrated by Craig Phillips (Wilding Books)


I pick up Aroha Knows and immediately feel relaxed. The weight of the book and the luxurious paper make me feel calm, as I read the beautiful, gentle instructions of the book.


This is not so much a story, as a meditation. Aroha begins by leading her friends to the beach ‘Where we can be without care, with sun-tousled hair, our brown feet can dance wild, and run free,’ where she enjoys their company, before taking them to another place she knows.


We travel from beach to a field with flowers, to watch the ‘daydreams piled high in the sky’, then via a garden to a forest, where they all meditate in their own way. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite as wholesome since Anne of Green Gables!


Spread from Aroha Knows, by Rebekah Lipp, illustrated by Craig Phillips (Wilding Books)


Aroha Knows is a follow on from Aroha’s Way, which is one of several books focused on children’s mental health. I think following advice from Aroha Knows is wise for everybody, children and adults alike. Think about how much better you felt after heading for a bushwalk during lockdown, or simply going outside and feeling the sun on your face.


The end of the book introduces Aroha and her friends as ‘Guardians of the Earth’, which if you came of age in the 90’s you will feel is a little reminiscent of Captain Planet! But these kids have great ideas on how to do their bit to save the planet – from eating less meat and planting trees, to starting their own gardens, seed saving and composting, there are practical and excellent ideas to be had.


Spread from Aroha Knows, by Rebekah Lipp, illustrated by Craig Phillips (Wilding Books)

There is also a longer explanation of what Aroha and her friends were doing when they were moving from habitat to habitat in the back.


The illustrations are loose and beautiful, with native plants, particularly the fern motif, getting particularly stunning treatments. Aroha and her friends are distinct people, and each has a different skin tone and different hair types—it seems weird to remark on, but this isn’t always the case! Great use is made of the depth of the page in each spread.



This is not so much a story, as (it is) a meditation.

Highly recommended as a special gift for a kid who enjoys a quieter pace in life. The information at the end is pitched older, but the main part of the book is suitable from 2+.



Aroha Knows


by Rebekah Lipp, illustrated by Craig Phillips Published by Wilding Books RRP $20.00

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Let it Go, by Rebekah Lipp, illustrated by Craig Phillips (Wilding Books)

Another from Wildling Books duo Rebekah and Craig, this is a lovely book about dealing with life’s hard emotions: sadness, shame, anger, and fear.


Each emotion is shown as a thread connecting images depicting what Aroha and each of her friends does when dealing with a specific feeling. For sadness, Ollie is shown crying on a tree swing, and lying in a puddle on the ground (with his red band gumboots on of course). Readers are told that feelings are just energy in motion, so letting them go allows you to free yourself of them.


Spread from Let it Go, by Rebekah Lipp, illustrated by Craig Phillips (Wilding Books)

The illustrations are again what makes this book shine. The beautiful koru within the glowing lanterns Ollie lets go (to watch his sadness float away) will bring any reader joy as they come across them. There are also plenty of details for caregivers to point out to those they are reading the book with, or for the kids to point out to them.



The illustrations are what makes this book shine. There are plenty of details for caregivers to point out to those they are reading the book with, or for the kids to point out to them.


‘Close your eyes. Let the sadness drift high and pass by Set it sailing on a breath-filled clear midnight sky.’


Anger is fiery for Aroha, Charlie does something that fills her with shame, Mason has dread come calling. I think the advice is sound for some children, but would suggest parents read through to make sure they are happy with the techniques shown. I’d say the suggestions are best for kids aged 3-6, as they learn how to interact gently with the world around them.


Spread from Let it Go, by Rebekah Lipp, illustrated by Craig Phillips (Wilding Books)


This book is ideal for anybody who loves beautiful books, as well as those with preschoolers who may be a little erratic in temperament.


Let it Go


by Rebekah Lipp, illustrated by Craig Phillips Published by Wilding Books RRP $20.00

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Tatty Catty, by Susannah Whaley, illustrated by Hayley Elliott-Kernot (Marigold Books)

I enjoyed the swing in this tale of an ocean-going tatty cat, who explores the world with some kindly pirates. I would have enjoyed it that much more if I could read it aloud without having to second-guess my rhythm to ensure the rhyme though—it wasn't quite a clean scan.


Tatty Catty tries by means fair and foul to get onto a boat to sail the seas, because she has adventures in her heart. The first attempt is no good, but she zig-zags to get herself onto a pirate ship, enjoying the lagoons they put in at, with ‘jewel-covered mermaids who walked on land too’ and a baboon with a kink in his tail like hers.


Spread from Tatty Catty, by Susannah Whaley, illustrated by Craig Phillips (Marigold Books)


‘Salt in her whiskers, sand in her paws,

Sailing the sea was Tatty’s greatest adventure of all.’



I enjoyed the swing in this tale of an ocean-going tatty cat, who explores the world with some kindly pirates.


The illustrations are well done, and at their best when Hayley Elliott-Kernot is drawing creatures, of both land and sea. Tatty is lovely and crooked and wild-looking, while my favourite page is the big green octopus. I’d love to have seen more consideration of depth of focus, as there are only a couple of spreads where we get a good sense of background. It was good to see some variation in spreads though, from close-up, to single scene, and full double-page spreads.


Spread from Tatty Catty, by Susannah Whaley, illustrated by Craig Phillips (Marigold Books)


I’m not sure why Tatty Catty went on her adventure - cats rarely give up their secrets - but I’m sure there are many kids who will enjoy going along with her and making a feline friend. Perhaps they’ll even be inspired to create tatty’s adventures for themselves. Hopefully without jumping aboard a *real* pirate ship. Suitable for ages 3-8.



Tatty Catty

by Susannah Whaley, illustrated by Hayley Elliott-Kernot Published by Marigold Books RRP $25.00

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Tree Beings, by Raymond Huber, illustrated by Sandra Severgnini, foreword by Dr Jane Goodall (Exisle Publishing)


This book is utterly enchanting. It’s somewhat unusual to find a children’s book with a foreword from the best-known primatologist in the world, Dr Jane Goodall, but I can see why she lent her name to this collection of true stories about environmental change-makers.


Dr Jane Goodall tells us about her time in Tanzania, 'I got to know individual trees and would greet them whenever I passed, pausing to feel the bark.' She introduces some of the wonderful people we’re about to meet, and tells us what trees are doing to slow climate change.


Raymond Huber has done a tremendous job of collating the stories he brings to his readers in this beautifully designed and illustrated book. The book covers four big ideas and draws together stories about people who understand trees on a deeper level, whether they are endangering themselves to stop deforestation, planting thousands of trees, discovering how trees communicate, or working out new ways to help them thrive.


Spread from Tree Beings, by Raymond Huber, illustrated by Sandra Severgnini, foreword by Dr Jane Goodall (Exisle Publishing)


Throughout the title, there are words in green. This is specific vocabulary that younger readers may not recognise, so there is a glossary at the back. A great way to not speak down to children, but to respect their level of knowledge while adding to it.


Each chapter opening is just exquisitely illustrated—on the cover page of ‘Trees are like beings’ we can see different types of wood and the creatures that thrive on them, whether fungi, locusts, red ants, or caterpillars. All manner of creepy-crawlies are present on this page. Severgnini has an eye for detail and a wide range of abilities, which see her illustrations go from Brian Lovelock levels of technical detail, to exquisite biological sketches of chimp hands, fruit, and insects.



Severgnini has an eye for detail and a wide range of abilities, which see her illustrations go from Brian Lovelock levels of technical detail, to exquisite biological sketches of chimp hands, fruit, and insects.


Huber brings his considerable writing skills to telling these stories in a variety of ways. He delivers ‘day in the life’ sketches telling significant incidents, while also telling histories of significant tree lovers, and delivering facts in a clear and eye-catching way. He tells stories of a huge range of people old and young, from all over the world. It is so important to understand how much these people did behind the scenes to change peoples’ minds about the value of forests.


People like Professor Wangari Maathai, who brought women together in the Green Belt Movement to plant trees all over Kenya, protesting against a cruel government and forcing them to save the forest through the power of protest. People like Felix Finkbeiner who began a movement when he was nine years old to inspire children to fight climate change by planting one trillion trees. People like Tony Rinaudo who went to help people in Niger, discovering a way to regenerate their forests quickly from underground roots.


Spread from Tree Beings, by Raymond Huber, illustrated by Sandra Severgnini, foreword by Dr Jane Goodall (Exisle Publishing)


I also learned about the tree internet discovered by Suzanne Simard, tree rings and so much more. Huber even gives readers ideas on how to make friends with trees, before inspiring us with a tale of tree-hugging women in India. “We humans are a part of nature too, so it would be stupid not to care for it.”


It’s hard not to feel inspired to act by this book, no matter your age. I recommend this beautiful title for readers over 6, whether they already know a bit about the environment or whether this is their first introduction to the wonder of trees.




Tree Beings

by Raymond Huber, illustrated by Sandra Severgnini, foreword by Dr Jane Goodall Published by Exisle Publishing RRP $34.99

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Sarah Forster

Sarah Forster is the founding editor of The Sapling alongside Jane Arthur. Her day job is writing for Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, but her heart lies with children's books. She has two sons, aged 10 and 8. She grew up on the West Coasts of the South Island and of Western Australia, and lives in Wellington.