Early Childhood Judges’ Report
The Early Childhood category encompasses books suitable in both style and content for children who are pre-readers or beginning readers. In general, these books will be introduced to the young child by an adult, often as a shared reading experience. There is the opportunity for the reader to assist in expanding the child’s understanding of the text and the illustrations.
The 2017 Awards saw 89 books entered in the Early Childhood category with 22 of these books also entered in the Picture Book category. The books entered varied greatly in many ways. The quality of the books ranged from those of a very high standard as represented in the Notable and Short List, to others of a much lower standard.
As these books are for the very young, they are written to be read aloud. Quality entries showed a good use of rhythm, meter and choice of words. Words that form the audible element need to be carefully selected for rhythm and cadence when being read aloud, as this is the primary way in which young children ‘receive’ the stories. Picture books being stories that are told in words and pictures, the illustrations are equally important, and must reflect and enhance the text. Illustrations that form the visual element can be bright and bold, or calm and composed, or active and amusing. In 2017, the entries showed a diversity of style and medium.
Content needs to be of an appropriate level and subject for the age group and can engage with the children emotionally and intellectually. Common themes in books entered for the 2017 Awards included friendship, being different, helping others, showing independence, solving problems and Australian lifestyle and animals. The weather also featured in several titles – The Snow Wombat, All I want for Christmas is Rain, Home in the Rain, Little Bear’s First Sleep, The Rainbow and the Bully Bug and Penelope the Mountain Pygmy Possum. Having a relationship with a special toy was also explored in Where is Bear?, The Rainbow Rug, Losing Lucy, My Magnificent Jelly Bean Tree, Eve and Elly and My Friend Ernest.
Authors who chose to use rhyming text to deliver their story sometimes let the rhyme interfere with the rhythm and development of the story. Whilst young children respond well to rhyme, it is not helpful when the rhyming overwhelms the content. In some cases, the rhyming was not accurate and did not balance with the overall rhythm of the text. There were some books that had a very appealing storyline and were written in rhyme, but would have been a much stronger contender if they had been written in prose. Authors who wanted to deliver a message were sometimes too didactic, reducing the appeal for both the children and the adults reading to them.
Very simple stories and uncluttered pages work well with this age group. Rhyme and repetition needs to be well done to be effective. It is important for very young children to be able to identify characters and settings even if they are imaginative (as in Incredibilia, Bear Make Den, Twig and Zelda’s Big Adventure). Young children need to be skilfully drawn into a suspension of disbelief with careful crafting of the setting and characters.
Funny pictures, the antics of animals and babies, and familiar day-to-day activities are all suitable in books of this category. Text can include some complex words that extend children’s vocabulary and understanding, especially if they can be explained through accompanying illustrations. It is not necessary to keep to ‘easy-to-read’ words for new readers as children in this age group are read to by an adult rather than reading the text themselves. Books that encourage interaction using repetitive text, chant or questioning also appeal to this age group. The suspension of action as the listener waits for the page to be turned to reveal the subsequent events/outcome is also popular. Heart-warming emotions and relationships (as depicted in books such as Nannie Loves, Together Always, My Perfect Pup, Molly and Mae, and Oh Albert!) encourage discussion with children at a very young age.
The books on the Notable list in the Early Childhood category are diverse and each one stands on its own merits. It is a rich list and a tribute to talents of all the wonderful creators.
There were 90 books entered in the Early Childhood category. Of these, 30 were selected as Notable titles. Most entries were good quality hardback books, with strong pages, interesting and engaging endpapers and professional illustrations of a very high standard. Text was often varied in size and placement to add emphasis and interest. Illustrations used a wide variety of medium and white space was effective where included.
Common themes included friendship, being different, helping others, showing independence and solving problems. Many titles featured Australian lifestyle and Australian animals as characters. The weather was important in several titles and there were some books that explored the importance of a special toy or object.
Go Home Cheeky Animals – Johanna Bell, illustrated by Dion Beasley (Allen & Unwin)
The cheeky animals are introduced on the front cover, doing very crazy things. Upon opening the book, we find a labelled street map of Canteen Creek with the cheeky animals shown where they appear in the town. The child centred, quirky illustrations add to the text and allow for interaction with listeners as the story unfolds with text such as “They like our house best because my grandpa feeds them” and an illustration showing grandpa holding a string of sausages. On pages where the text refers to the changing seasons, it sits on textured painted backdrops which contrast with the predominantly white background of the action pages. Anyone who has visited a community like this, will appreciate the authentic feel of this book. The themes of family, home, place and the seasons of this community are explored in a logical, flowing plot.
Nannie Loves – Kylie Dunstan (Working Title Press)
This is a lovely book which explores relationships with the environment and family. The front cover and endpapers are well designed to set the scene effectively. Both the text and illustrations explain life on a farm in an accessible way for very young children. The type of animals, farm activities, equipment and the pattern of daily life is explained in kind, positive language. The bold colours of the uncluttered collages make this appealing to very young children as well. There are varying perspectives in the illustrations and use of silhouettes. There are many opportunities for discussion about the story and the illustrations.
Gary – Leila Rudge (Walker Books)
Gary can’t fly, but plans and dreams of having adventures until an accident changes all that. The cover and endpapers give clues to the story that will unfold. Gary is an engaging character and his resourcefulness and acceptance of his disability are important themes. Being different, working with what you have, using your knowledge to solve problems and being brave are all explored as the plot develops to an unexpected and funny ending. The illustrations are in gentle colours to reflect the calmness of the story and are very expressive. The endpapers, road signs and maps throughout the book reinforce the setting and help to create an air of authenticity to the overall story.
Other Shortlisted Books
Chip – Kylie Howarth (Bonnier Publishing Australia, The Five Mile Press)
A simply told, humorous story that has endearing characters and a beach setting that is identifiable to very young children. The design elements are excellent, with clear illustrations, meaningful endpapers and well-chosen font with variations in size to add emphasis. There is an unexpected fold out page that adds interest and engagement with the story. There are many opportunities for visual literacy incorporated into this story, such as words on different signs that get put up at the beach, a newspaper article, a coupon and names on trucks. The cartoon style illustrations are bold and colourful and the line work is very effective. The themes of teamwork, problem solving and persistence underlie this story and the resolution is very satisfying.
All I want for Christmas is Rain – Cori Brooke, illustrated by Megan Forward (New Frontier Publishing)
A variety of different visual and thematic perspectives are captured in the illustrations in this book. We see the farm from above at the beginning, as if the reader is flying in to visit. The huge truck is seen near the horizon leaving with cattle, which explains the empty paddocks marked with white fences. Later we see more of the drought’s devastation from the father’s viewpoint as he sits dejectedly on a barrel. When the rains come, there is another aerial view, as if the reader is leaving the family to their joy. The muddy endpapers reflect the land before the rain and then show how the land has changed. The textures of the illustrations support and enrich the very simple rhyming text. The meaning of the story is clear by the title but the way that the story unfolds is a unique idea. This book provides opportunities for discussion about the difficulties that farmers and their families face as they go about their work to feed Australians. It is an uplifting story about wishing for a Christmas gift that will benefit everyone.
The Snow Wombat – Susannah Chambers, illustrated by Mark Jackson (Allen & Unwin)
Set in the Australian high country, this book sets the scene by featuring a map on the endpapers. Young readers can delight in tracing the wombat’s journey through the snow by following the red lines on the map. It would be fun for readers to find the many creatures in the illustrations not referred to in the text. The watercolour illustrations have wonderful texture and capture the falling snow and how it settles on the landscape. The colour and style of the illustrations are gentle and sensitive and set an appropriate mood for the story. The wombat’s emotions are effectively portrayed in the illustrations as well; from his purposeful walk through the snow on the cover, to the joyful rolling on his back as the snow falls on his tum. The rhyming text tells the story very simply in a predictive style and invites the reader to join in, making this book accessible to very young children.