Stephanie Owen Reeder delves into picture books that deal with childhood fear.
Helping children to overcome their fears can be difficult but, often, sharing a well-crafted picture book can help.
Brave Squish Rabbit (UQP. 32pp. $19.95) by Katherine Battersby immediately impresses with its soft, glow-in-the-dark cover, strong colours and cute main character. Battersby obviously empathises with children's fears and, with sensitivity and humour, taps into the child's sense of being "very small in a big world".
Little rabbit Squish is afraid of storms and the dark but he also has a somewhat irrational fear of chickens. However, the dark wins hands down because, according to Squish, it is just so big and it is everywhere. He tries to hide from his fears in some unusual places but he cannot shake them off. When his best friend Twitch the squirrel goes missing, Squish sets out to find him, despite the fact that he is convinced that Twitch is lost in the dark, in a storm with a chicken.
Battersby's minimalist technique, with its strong outlines and interesting use of texture, creates entrancing child-like characters with highly expressive body language. Her illustrations combine watercolours, fabrics and found objects manipulated into impressive digital collages, and are matched by a pared back text which reads well aloud.
Brave Squish Rabbit has just the right amount of drama to keep little ones enthralled. And the reassuring ending helps children understand that even scary things like the dark can be beautiful and awe-inspiring, especially when shared with a friend. This is a special book.
Stephanie Blake's Stupid Baby (Gecko Press. 32pp. $29.99) is also about a little rabbit facing childhood fears, including fear of the dark. But preschooler Simon has the added trauma of having to deal with a new sibling who, he has just realised, is probably going to stay forever.
Poor Simon is frustrated that he can no longer make lots of noise because he might wake the baby. He is also worried that, because they have a "stupid baby", his Mummy and Daddy will not protect and love him as much any more.
Before he goes to bed, Simon demands lots of reassuring hugs and kisses from his parents, but he still cannot get to sleep. In his fraught state, he decides that there are wolves outside his window. When Mummy and Daddy discourage him from climbing into their bed, Simon finds solace with a somewhat unlikely ally - his baby brother. Obviously, all those wolves just needed to know that he was not alone.
The strong, gem-like colours and simple, clear composition of the cartoon-style illustrations are visually appealing. And Simon is an engaging character, his predicament a familiar one. Stupid Baby is an entertaining exposition of childhood fears, handled with aplomb, humour and insight.
On the surface, Jon Klassen's This Is Not My Hat (Candlewick Press. 32pp. $24.95) is a very simple tale about a small fish who steals a hat from a larger fish and tries to get away with it. But underneath it is a deep psychological drama, as the little fish tries to justify what he has done, allay his fears and convince himself that he will not be caught.
The beauty of this book is not only in the little fish's stream-of-consciousness commentary as he tries to escape from his crime but in the deadpan humour created by the counterpointing of text and images, as the illustrations reveal that everything the nervous little fish presumes in the text is incorrect. This Is Not My Hat features understated illustrations in muted shades. In a series of four double-page spreads at the beginning of the book, the floating form of the large fish takes up almost the whole picture space as he wakes up, discovers his hat is missing, and works out where it has gone. While all four images look basically the same, slight variations in the plant-life, the bubbles and, most importantly, the eye of the large fish indicate exactly what he is thinking. This is a very clever chase story with a difference. It illustrates just how visually and intellectually sophisticated a seemingly simple picture book can be. This is definitely one not to miss.
The Fishing Trip (Gecko Press. 28pp. $22.99) is the third in a series of wordless picture books created by Beatrice Rodriguez. Like This Is Not My Hat, there are underlying messages in this story for the visually aware. However, young children will also delight in the simple pleasures of the intrepid chicken's fishing adventure.
Based on the somewhat unlikely premise of a loving relationship between a fox and a chicken, this story begins with the happy family expecting a new addition. However, when fox discovers that the fridge is empty, brave chicken leaves him in charge of her egg and heads off to go fishing for their supper. Alarm bells ring immediately - a hungry fox, in possession of a frying pan, left in charge of an egg.
Chicken encounters challenges as she and the fish she catches are carried off by an eagle. In a series of inviting and easy to ''read'' watercolour images, which gallop across the double-page spreads of this long, narrow book, the brave chicken finally triumphs. However, there is a twist, and it seems that our fears have been realised when chicken returns home. Luckily, she realises in time that she has jumped to the wrong conclusion, and the whole family can finally enjoy their dinner. This is visual storytelling at its best.
Stephanie Reeder is a Canberra author, illustrator and editor. Her latest book, Amazing Grace: An Adventure at Sea (National Library of Australia), won the New South Wales Premier's Young People's History Prize in 2012.