Five Favourite Picture Books

I don’t read many children’s picture books these days, but I’ve just come across two excellent ones, which reminded me of some old favourites. Note: I realise lots of children’s picture books are designed to teach Important Moral Lessons, but when I read a picture book, I mostly want it to make me laugh. All of these books deliver on that front.

1. This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

'This Is Not My Hat' by Jon Klassen

“A fish has stolen a hat. And he’ll probably get away with it. Probably.”

This is a clever and very funny story about a little fish who steals a hat from a big fish. The little fish is not worried about his crime, because even if the big fish “does notice that it’s gone, he probably won’t know it was me who took it. And even if he does guess it was me, he won’t know where I am going.” Unfortunately, it turns out there’s a witness to the crime. But he won’t tell, will he?

The illustrations are fabulous, featuring simple, flat figures that manage to convey a vast amount of information through tiny changes in shape. I loved the single, visible eye of the big fish, which progressively showed the fish asleep, awake, alert to his missing hat, angry, and very, very determined to get his hat back. And the text was perfect, juxtaposing the little fish’s blithe narration (“So I am not worried about that”) with images of his impending doom (a little crab with scared, googly eyes points frantically with his claw as the big fish bears down on them). Bonus points for this book because the text is printed in a clear, easy-to-read black font of uniform size on an off-white background. (My pet peeve regarding children’s picture books is when the illustrator uses a barely-readable font that meanders all over the page, changes size constantly and blends in with the background colours, all for no apparent reason other than to make the book seem Wacky and Zany. Illustrators – it just makes it really hard for new readers to figure out the words. So stop doing it.) Oh, and I guess this book does have an Important Moral Lesson, too: Don’t steal hats from big fish.

2. Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs

'Mr Chicken Goes To Paris' by Leigh Hobbs

“The world’s most beautiful city meets the world’s most startling chicken . . .”

Mr Chicken, a four-metre-tall, bright yellow chicken, visits his friend Yvette in Paris. It is a very eventful trip. He rides the Métro, drops in at the Musée du Louvre (where the tourists decide he’s far more interesting than the Mona Lisa), climbs the outside of the Eiffel Tower (“Mr Chicken was far too excited to wait for the lift”), plays in the bell tower of Notre Dame, does lots of shopping, and decides to go on a diet after looking at his “great big bottom” in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. This does not stop him eating “everything on the menu” at dinner, which causes some problems when he tries to squeeze onto the plane at the end of his trip. But luckily, his clever young friend Yvette has a solution . . .

Bonus points for teaching me some French phrases (for example, Monsieur Poulet va à Paris). Magnifique!

3. What Faust Saw by Matt Ottley

'What Faust Saw' by Matt Ottley

“One night, Faust woke up, looked out the window and saw something very strange . . .”

Faust is a big brown dog who just happens to be the only witness when a horde of drooling, multicoloured aliens invades his suburb. Faust wakes up his family to inform them, but they don’t believe him. It is all very unfair. Faust decides to run away (“Then they’d be sorry”), but the aliens follow him and worse, someone hears him barking at them. Oh no, it’s the dog catcher!

This book loses some points for having hard-to-read text that meanders all over the page, but the richly coloured, beautifully detailed oil paintings make up for it. This book was very popular with my young students (as long as I read the words aloud to them), because they loved the aliens, especially the big, dinosaur-like one with the disgusting string of snot hanging from one nostril.

4. Counting on Frank by Rod Clement

'Counting On Frank' by Rod Clement

This book is about a boy who likes counting. No, he really, really likes counting. He especially likes calculating and estimating – for example, figuring out how long it would take the entire house to fill with water if he leaves the bath taps on and the plug in the bath, or how many humpback whales would fit inside his house, or how long his arms will grow if he has to keep dragging tins of dog food home from the shops for his dog, Frank. The (unnamed) boy’s counting is driving his parents mad – until they encounter a situation where his talent really comes in handy.

This has great illustrations of the bizarrely logical world of the boy’s imagination. This will appeal to children who like maths or have their own obsessive behaviours, especially when they see the boy’s (and Frank’s) moment of triumph at the end.

5. Traction Man Is Here by Mini Grey

'Traction Man Is Here' by Mini Grey

“An exciting adventure about a boy and his superhero can-do toy.”

A brand-new Traction Man arrives for Christmas (complete with “dazzle-painted battle pants”, jungle camouflage, sub aqua suit and space gear). He’s soon embroiled in daring adventures, including battling deep-sea monsters (aka a dishcloth in the sink), photographing the legendary Mysterious Toes (in the bathtub), rescuing dollies from the Wicked Professor Spade, and also acquiring a sidekick, Scrubbing Brush. But after taking the InterGalactic People Mover to Granny’s house, Traction Man faces his toughest assignment yet – getting rid of the “knitted green romper suit and matching bonnet” that Granny’s made him for Christmas.

This is a hilarious celebration of children’s imaginative play, with a few sly jokes for grown-ups hidden in the detailed, brightly coloured illustrations. Super good!

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