25 June 2021

The Canberra bookshelf: beautiful local books for babies and children

| Barbie Robinson
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helly Unwin Hello Baby copy

Shelly Unwin’s Hello Baby is visually strong and enjoyable for adults too. Image: Supplied.

I confess to being a collector and lover of the picture book. Writers like Jeanie Baker, Shaun Tan and Elise Hurst produce consistently superb works which take the genre to a level well beyond the simple story book. They are laden with philosophy for adult readers but visually beautiful and accessible to the eyes of children.

As winter settles in and hunkering down with good books is even more tempting than usual, I thought I’d bring to your attention the wealth of children’s picture book writers and illustrators whom we are graced to have among us in Canberra.

The best picture books, I believe, must have something to offer adults as it is we who spend many hours repeatedly reading favourites to our children and grandchildren at bedtimes.

This may be a layered text that contains references only adults will pick up, it may be gentle or satirical humour or it may be the capacity to bring forgotten childhood memories to the fore.

As well as good writing and illustrations that can elicit discussion, the production quality of a read aloud book needs to be top notch to withstand the many page turnings and finger pokings it will receive. I favour hardback picture books for this reason.

It is never too early to read to your children and the familiar routine of favourite and new bedtime stories is a lovely way to end the day, to bring down the activity level a notch or seven and to have quiet chat time with your child.

READ ALSO The Canberra bookshelf: guerrillas, history and Beethoven’s mysterious Tenth

Shelly Unwin, author of Hello Baby (with Jedda Robbard, Allen & Unwin, 2021) is an advocate of reading to your baby in utero and in her public presentations she extols the benefits of regular shared reading time. Hello Baby is about how precious each baby is and how important all of the firsts are.

Artist Jo Hollier’s Chicken or Egg (first published independently in 2014) is dedicated to all battery hens and is a showcase for her cleverly observed studies of chooks. Here’s an example of apparent simplicity capable of engendering so much more discussion with children of all ages. It’s versatile in that a very small child can listen or read it but older children can discuss the politics and ethics of battery hen egg production.

Grandmas Knicker Tree cover

Grandma’s Knicker Tree is a recent addition to the list of children’s books written in Canberra. Image: Supplied.

Another book with a social message clothed in a charming story of sibling love and girl power cape antics is Krys Saclier’s Supernova (with illustrator Rebecca Timms, Ford Street Publishing, 2019). This colourful, gentle story will appeal not just to little girls looking for a presence but to parents navigating the whole business of gender roles and sibling relationships in families.

Samantha Tidy and Juliette Dudley– our bush capital (Storytorch Press, 2020) whilst clearly a boon for our tourism office, is also a charming study of the meaning of home and an account of the many places in our great town which the author has visited with her own children. It’s a reminder to us all of the importance of creating simple and happy family memories.

The newest book in this June list is written by Melbournian Emma Bowd with pictures by Canberra writer-illustrator Tania McCartney. Wonderful Shoes (Windy Hollow Books, 2021) is a book aimed at toddlers – an unashamed homage to the glory of shoes.

Its onomatopoeic text will be a hit with little ones who can join in on the shoe sounds. For adults it recalls that time when we desperately wanted to ‘wear bigger shoes’, a time that comes all too soon really.

Having recently joined the ranks of children’s picture book authors in collaboration with artist Ian Robertson with our Grandma’s Knicker Tree (For Pity Sake Publishing, 2020), I have been delighted to learn how collegial and supportive Canberra writers and illustrators are of one another.

Indeed this seems to be true Australia wide with organisations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators providing member benefits and guidance.

What is your favourite children’s book for reading aloud?

Barbie Robinson is co-founder and a content creator for Living Arts Canberra, a not for profit media outfit supporting arts and community in the Canberra region and books worldwide through its website, podcast interviews and a 24/7 internet radio station, at https://www.livingartscanberra.com.au/

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