You won't find Grandma Z with curlers and knitting needles. Run-of-the-mill for this gregarious granny involves motorcycles, rock climbing, a dragon's tooth horn, dancing Icelandic ponies and afternoon tea at a palace – all while wearing a furry blue trench coat.
Grandma Z is the birthday candle wish of young Albert, who cannot bear to spend his special occasion "like every other extremely ordinary day".
Medical scientist turned illustrator Daniel Gray-Barnett gave life to the whimsical pair in his debut picture book, Grandma Z, which has earned him this year's Children's Book Council of Australia's (CBCA) award for New Illustrator. Gray-Barnett, who has drawn for The New Yorker and Coachella Festival, posted a doodle of the pair on Instagram, and an eagle-eyed book editor promptly signed him to write their story.
"I wanted to focus on the power of the imagination to transform people's lives and to change the world," Gray-Barnett said.
A few nannas have thanked him for their adventurous re-imagining in the figure of Grandma Z, who stomps all over ageist stereotypes, the Tasmanian adds.
The strength of the Australian children's book industry is on full display in this year's CBCA Book of the Year Awards, with the winners whittled down from 488 entries, including a record 111 first-time creators.
Australia's favourite children's storytellers dominated, including Emily Rodda with His Name Was Walter (Book of the Year for younger readers); Alison Lester with Tricky's Bad Day (Book of the Year for early childhood) and Shaun Tan with Cicada (Picture Book of the Year).
Clare Atkins' second novel, Between Us, claimed Book of the Year for older readers, and Coral Vass' Sorry Day, with illustrations by Dub Leffler, won the Eve Pownall Award for books that document factual material.
CBCA national chair Professor Margot Hillel said children's books had become more overtly political over the past few years. LGBTIQ families and relationships were frequently being explored, and Indigenous writers, writers with a disability, and writers from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds were increasingly finding a platform to tell diverse stories. War, solitude, family, grief and alienation – and a surprising number of bear protagonists – were among the subjects recurring in recent children's books.
"Books generally are coming to reflect the diversity of our society much more than they used to," Professor Hillel said. "That is significant and important. People do need to be able to see themselves in what they are reading. It's an important development."
Atkins is one winner who has tapped into contemporary conversations in her young-adult novel about migration that explores the relationship between an Iranian asylum seeker in a Darwin detention centre, and a second-generation Vietnamese-Australian. Atkins, who is Vietnamese-Australian and visited detainees at the now-closed Wickham Point facility, said she hoped to create understanding, empathy and awareness in her readers with Between Us.
"I think young-adult authors are incredibly brave and often go straight to the heart of the issues facing us as a society. I think they don't shy away from it at all," Atkins said.
"Once you've been moved to have an experience of empathy for someone from a different culture, background or situation you are not as likely to fall into stereotypes."
After falling into children's books by happy accident, Gray-Barnett is working on a second book, this time of children's poetry.
"Making children's books is a bit more magical. I think also it is a bit more stressful. There is pressure. You know that kids are impressionable. You're possibly sending them a message in a book and so you have to pick your message clearly."
2019 Book of the Year Award winners:
Book of the Year, Older Readers: Clare Atkins, Between Us (Black Inc)The Nona & Me author's second novel is about a friendship between two teenagers: Anahita, an Iranian asylum seeker in detention in Australia, and Jono, whose Vietnamese single father Kenny works as a guard at the facility.
Book of the Year, Younger Readers: Emily Rodda, His Name Was Walter (HarperCollins)The much-loved author's handwritten, illustrated book follows a school excursion during which four students and their teacher discover a mysterious book, about Walter and a girl named Sparrow, in an old house. A story within a story, with a touch of mystery, history and the fantastic.
Book of the Year, Early Childhood: Alison Lester, Tricky's Bad Day (Affirm Press)Tricky's having one of those days when nothing is going right (we can all relate to the spilt milk and problematic pajama buttons) – lucky dad has a plan for an outdoor adventure up his sleeves!
Picture Book of the Year: Shaun Tan, Cicada (Hachette)A powerful and poignant story, with mesmerising illustrations, about a suit-wearing cicada who toils as a data-entry clerk day in and day out. It's a tale of corporate alienation, bullying, boredom – and finding freedom.
Eve Pownall Award: Coral Vass, illustrator Dub Leffler, Sorry Day (National Library of Australia)As Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's delivers his momentous apology to the Stolen Generations, Maggie loses her mother. As they are reunited, the memories of children taken from their parents in the past come to life. This award is for books that have the prime intention of documenting factual material.
Award for New Illustrator: Daniel Gray-Barnett, Grandma ZOn an ordinary day in an ordinary town, it is Albert's birthday. But he wants to do something extraordinary, and at just the right time along comes his spirited Grandma Z who turns his birthday into one he will never forget.
CBCA Book Week takes place from August 17-23. The list of winners, including honour books, can be found at cbca.org.au.