• Simie Simpson

New picture books from Aotearoa

The Sapling's Simie Simpson, reviews four new picture books from Aotearoa that feature a dog searching for a forever home, a racing buggy that reaches for the stars, some local gardens, imaginative play and emotions.



The Garden's Secrets by Sarah Johnson, illustrated by Deborah Hinde. (Hamilton Gardens)


The Garden’s Secrets is a joyous little book that explores the Hamilton Gardens, which if I am honest, I thought might be more an exercise in marketing the gardens than a charming picture book for kids. Well, colour me cynical, because this book defied expectations. It takes the reader through the gardens in a way that would appeal to children and adults alike, and it is beautifully written with evocative language that stirs the imagination. The detailed and gentle illustrations complement and add to the text in the way all good picture books should.


The detailed and gentle illustrations complement and add to the text in the way all good picture books should.

Cooper finds a door to a garden, which is a curious concept, after all “Doors go inside to outside…. or room to room. But in a garden…?” The door appears stuck but the wind sighs: “Try again…imagine the other side”. Adults may feel a sense of nostalgia reading this, for me, it brought to mind some classic tales from my childhood: The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland, and Arabian Nights.


There is so much detail in the illustrations; bees, butterflies and birds follow Cooper, while the use of subtle patterning helps convey the culture that each garden is drawing on. The language is poetic and this is not just an ode to a spectacular garden but also to imaginative play.


Spread from The Garden's Secrets in the Hamilton Gardens, by Sarah Johnson, illustrated by Deborah Hinde (Hamilton Gardens)


My only feeling of disappointment in the entire book was when Cooper crept past the Te Parapara Garden, whispering that he would leave the pou in peace to guard. I wanted him to explore this garden as imaginatively and thoroughly as he had the others.


The end pages continue the story; the front shows a family picnicking in the garden and Cooper wandering off to begin his adventure, while the end has a map and information about the gardens. I enjoyed how it explains a little bit about the garden's history and meaning, while retaining the whimsical element of the story by saying “There are many mysterious doors within the gardens and even the staff don’t know where some of them lead.”



The Garden's Secrets

By Sarah Johnson

Illustrated by Deborah Hinde

Hamilton Gardens RRP $25.00

Buy now






Moon & Sun by Melinda Szymanik, illustrated by Malene Laugesen. (Upstart Press)


The dreamy watercolours in Moon & Sun by Melinda Szymanik and Malene Laugesen, give this story a myth-like feeling. The colour palette is gorgeous and ranges from the bright yellows to sombre blues and purples that perfectly describe the bright, hot sun and cool, dark moon.


The story is deceptively simple, Moon’s sister Sun is, excuse the pun, the sibling who shines. Everyone loves her and Moon feels alone and unloved. “Everyone loves my big sister” the story begins, Moon says, “I feel as if I am always in her shadow.”


Spread from Moon & Sun by Melinda Szymanik, illustrated by Malene Laugesen (Upstart Press)


This picture book works on many levels. It simply describes the purpose of the sun and the moon: “The oceans dance in and out because of you …” and it illustrates how they occasionally inhabit the same sky. However, it is also a book for anyone who has ever felt overshadowed by someone – a sibling or a friend. We all know that person who shines bright and this book acknowledges those feelings beautifully, while stating the significance of our differences, and how we are all important in some way: “it would be terrible if we were the same.”


...it is also a book for anyone who has ever felt overshadowed by someone – a sibling or a friend. We all know that person who shines bright and this book acknowledges those feelings beautifully...

This is ultimately an uplifting book, but it gives voice to the negative feelings we can have when we feel sad, such as when Moon says: “I am alone. And unloved.” I can’t think of a picture book from my childhood that stated these emotions so directly and it would make a great discussion book for a parent with a child who is feeling unhappy or even jealous. It’s a book that parents could use to discuss sibling rivalry or just one to read to a child.





Moon & Sun

By Melinda Szymanik.

Illustrated by Malene Laugesen


Upstart Press RRP $20.00

Buy now






This is the Dog by Maura Finn, illustrated by Nina Rycroft. (Scholastic)


Okay, full disclosure here, in my house I have a bookshelf devoted to picture books and within that there is a section devoted to picture books about dogs. This is the continuation of a lifelong obsession that started with Harry the Dirty Dog and has continued through dog ownership and reading many, many books about dogs. I feel like this makes me extremely qualified to review This is the Dog by Maura Finn and Nina Rycroft and I will try to remember that not everyone sets the bar as high as I do for picture books about dogs.


This is the house that Jack built is the underlying rhyme for This is the Dog, and it is a jaunty little rhyme that is perfectly suited for this story. And so, we begin with “This is the dog with the snuffly snout, the half-crumpled ear, the fur that sticks out.” You want this dog already, don’t you? This poor wee doggo lives in a pet shop and watches as all the desirable pups get chosen, until one day, lured by good food smells, he escapes into the street.



Spread from This is the Dog by Maura Finn and Nina Rycroft (Scholastic)


The illustrations are adorable, the pup is cute as a button and the bustling street is a glorious reminder of pre-COVID freedoms. There is so much in each scene: characters spotted in the first street scene feature throughout the story, there are dogs, people on bikes, babies in strollers, old people at bus stops, street scenes, libraries, and parks. I can imagine kids on their knees pointing everything out. On a re-read I noticed a random cat on a roof that I hadn’t spotted the first time around. The language and illustrations are equally joyous, and the upbeat rhyme makes it a perfect read aloud.



The language and illustrations are equally joyous, and the upbeat rhyme makes it a perfect read aloud.


The story of course is the dog trying to find a forever home – but in his quest, he is shooed away and left cold and lonesome. Will anyone notice him and see past his half-crumpled ear? I won’t ruin the ending for anyone, but I will say you should take This is the Dog home with you. It’s darn cute and your kids will probably spend their lives begging you for a dog but it is a small price to pay.



This is the dog

By Maura Finn. Translated by Nina Rycroft.

Scholastic

RRP $20.00

Buy now



Duggie the Buggy by Sam Wallace, illustrated by Shaun Yeo. (Scholastic)


Duggie the buggy is about a racing buggy who feels like his racing days are behind him. “The new cars were faster and much keener, more determined to win and much, much meaner.” Tessa particularly is stiff competition with her dual core battery. When Duggie comes across an old friend Ronnie the Rocket, he is filled with hope and they devise a brilliant new scheme that has Ronnie and Duggie aiming for the moon.


This is an upbeat story with illustrations that will appeal to kids. Shaun Yeo’s use of perspective gives life and energy to the illustrations, and I particularly enjoyed the waving seagull and seeing the earth with Aotearoa as the focus. You never see Aotearoa as the focus on a globe, and it made me happy for reasons I can’t explain.



Spread from Duggie the Buggy by Sam Wallace, illustrated by Shaun Yeo (Scholastic)


The rhyme is quite forced in parts, but props, because in a thousand years I wouldn’t have rhymed flattery with dual core battery or oil and aerofoil. Some of the elements of the story seemed to be there for no reason other than to progress the rhyme. I mean, Tess, for example, was sassy and had promise but after being a bit mean to Duggie she is never heard of again. I wanted to see more of Tess; maybe she could have lent them her dual core battery. Then the other racers who started out mean were suddenly their biggest fans, and I know, most people wouldn’t care or notice these things, but they really bug me. They hadn’t even achieved their goals and they had fans already.


I did enjoy the positive messages of working with what you have and believing in yourself; after all Ronnie may have been a humble bottle rocket, but he had Burt Munro style tenacity, and good on him! This is an optimistic story with cheerful and lively illustrations.



Ronnie may have been a humble bottle rocket, but he had Burt Munro style tenacity...


Duggie the buggy

By Sam Wallace.

Illustrated by Shaun Yeo.

Scholastic RRP $20.00

Buy now


Simie Simpson


Simie (Te Ati Awa) has worked in the New Zealand book industry for almost two decades, as a librarian, a sales manager Walker Books New Zealand and a bookseller. She is on the board of Queer literary festival, samesame but different. Her day job includes a monster mash of acquisitions, editing, design, comms, and promotions.