A little wonderstruck—Ruth Ennis on new picture-books by Irish artists this autumn
“From daunting dragons and mysterious monsters, witty animals and creatures of all shapes and sizes, and reassuring reads before bed, there is certainly something for every young reader this season. As we settle into these colder months, here are some picture-books worth curling up with.”
by Ruth Ennis
World-renowned author-illustrator Chris Haughton is back with his seventh picture-book; Well Done, Mummy Penguin (Walker Books).
Little Penguin and Daddy Penguin chat together as they wait for Mummy Penguin to return with dinner, rooting for her every step of the way. They watch her as she overcomes every obstacle in her path: leaping out of choppy seas, climbing on slippery ice, and sneaking past scary seals. Even when she faces a big setback, Mummy Penguin perseveres and makes sure Little Penguin doesn’t go hungry.
With his instantly-recognisable blocky illustration style that combines collage and digital art, Haughton succeeds in creating energetic scenes that will excite the young reader. The book is made to be read aloud, with comforting repetition and text that comes to life; “Cu-crunch… tip-toe… boink boink boink… splash!”
The cool, blue-based colour scheme is a good fit for the artic setting. The story is charming, and will appeal to fans of Haughton’s earlier work Don’t Worry, Little Crab. The book ends on a genuinely funny note that will be appreciated by adults and children alike, when – after all Mummy Penguin has gone through – Little Penguin asks for seconds.
Ashwin Chacko is a storyteller of many mediums, his new picturebook being just one example of his incredible range.
Everybody Feels Fear (DK Penguin Random House) is a picturebook that explores the variety of fears we all have, from small fears (Mice! Spiders!) to big fears (Bears! Monsters!). Shifting from humorous rhymes to sincere words of encouragement, the book reminds the reader that everyone does in fact feel fear and it does not define you; no matter how overwhelming it may feel, a seed of courage can go a long way, made easier when we work together.
Reassuring and humorous
The gentle message of reassurance and validation in this book will appeal to many young readers. Chacko effectively communicates the sense of anxiety, no matter the scale, that every child can experience.
And among its earnestness, there is also a healthy amount of humour (poking fun at the more adult fear of phone calls is certainly a favourite of this grown-up). The book’s bold illustration style and imaginative typography is immediately eye-catching, with the black-out pages being particularly striking. A solid read for any child who needs reminding that it’s okay to have fear and that love is the best catalyst for courage.
Cloud Babies (Walker Books) sees the collaboration of two notable Irish artists: writer Eoin Colfer and illustrator Chris Judge.
A sweet story about a girl called Erin who loves to look up at the clouds and imagine them as all sorts of creatures. But when Erin becomes ill, she spends a lot of time in the hospital. She finds herself caught between her two worlds of school and hospital, and relies on her comforting “cloud babies” to get through it all.
Grace and sensitivity
This book is helping to redefine what it means to produce a picturebook. The “cloud babies” are a combination of skyline photographs and imaginative illustrations by Judge.
Comparable to Oliver Jeffer’s There’s a Ghost in This House (Harper Collins Children’s Books), the merging of the two mediums brings about an artistic style that is inspired and playful.
Beyond that, the story itself handles the subject of childhood illness with grace and sensitivity. The emphasis on community through hardships is one that will resonate with many readers of all ages. It is an important book which will be undoubtedly a great comfort to children and families facing similar difficulties.
Paddy Donnelly presents us with his third author-illustrated picturebook, Fox & Son Tailers (The O’Brien Press).
Little fox Rory works with his dad in the family business; making tails of all shapes and sizes for all kinds of animals. But Rory has bigger ideas for his tails, he just needs the right opportunity to showcase his creativity and skills – so it’s perfect timing when a peacock arrives into the shop!
A perfect balance
This picturebook strikes the perfect balance between a fascinating, original story concept, and stunning artwork that will have you pouring over each page. There are many moments that are witty and will certainly elicit a chuckle (the tiny fox measuring a giraffe being a favourite).
It has a heart-warming ending, as Rory and his dad work together to make new and exciting tails for years to come. The illustrations are unforgettable; with a rich colour scheme, each double-page spread is filled with fun, hidden details that young readers will appreciate. The pace is expertly executed with striking panels.
An especially lovely feature of the production are the endpapers which feature a map of the town, complete with animal-inspired locations.
A truly brilliant piece that cements Donnelly’s place as one of the picturebook-making greats.
The Wilderness (Walker Books) is Steve McCarthy’s first author-illustrated book. The Vasylenko family, twelve children – all named after the months of the year – and their parents, brave the autumnal elements in search of exciting adventures.
The only exception being Oktober, who much prefers his adventures in the form of a good book. Bit by bit his family encourage him to look beyond his fears of the wilderness, and his courage is put to the test when he gets lost and stumbles across something monstrous.
Humour and wonder
Everything about this book roars “epic!” The massive size of the book, the grand adventure of getting lost, and the breath-taking spread when we are first introduced to the being that is The Wilderness (to be held vertically for optimal effect).
The attention to detail is astonishing, with each of the twelve children having distinct, recognisable personalities without so much as saying a word. It’s very much a book that lends itself to being read again and again, following a different path, and character, each time.
It is filled with moments of humour and wonder throughout, best encapsulated in the line “I feel happy, a bit scared, and a little wonderstruck.” The illustrations are lovely and vivid, the ideal book to read after a day exploring the wilderness.
I Believe in You (Gill Books) is the debut picturebook written by Deborah Somorin and illustrated by Grace Enemaku. We follow little Debbie as she has a not-so-good day; she can’t find her shoes, then loses her pencils and has trouble with her spellings. But someone is always there to help her every step of the way: her parents, her friends, and her teacher.
When her younger sister faces difficulties of her own during ballet class, Debbie helps her sister just like how everyone helped her. She realises that, when you have someone to believe in you, you can overcome any challenge.
A message-oriented book, this is a comforting read that will assure plenty of children facing any sort of difficulties. The returning to the motif “I believe in you” again and again grows more and more meaningful to little Debbie, as she becomes more confident in her abilities – to the point where she feels confident in believing in herself.
The illustrations are lovely and bright, especially the ballet scenes. An important book that will mean a lot to a child who needs that reassurance they are worth believing in.
Award-winning children’s book writer and illustrator Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick has a new picturebook published at the end of the summer. Don’t! (Otter-Barry Books) follows toddler Geraldine as she adapts to having a new baby brother Boo in the family.
She tries her best to relate to the baby so she mimics everything the baby does; roaring, kicking, and biting. When Boo does all of this, Mummy and Daddy think it’s very cute, but when Geraldine does the same she is scolded and gets into trouble! After Geraldine gets upset, Mummy and Daddy comfort her. Later on, she does the same and comforts Boo when he’s upset, bringing the two sibling closer together.
The new baby sibling experience
This is a fantastic picturebook that expertly encapsulates the new-baby-sibling experience for young children. Geraldine tries her best to be involved and doesn’t want to be left out. There is a brilliantly articulated sense of injustice when we see Geraldine try to cope with seemingly double-standards that she can’t understand.
The story will have you gripped from beginning to end and it is truly lovely to see her good intentions prevail and bring the two siblings closer together. The illustrations are timeless with a pleasant muted colour palette. Sure to resonate with any young reader with baby siblings, this is a must-read to have in every home.
Dare We Be Dragons (Farshore), written and illustrated by Barry Falls, is a touching story told in rhyme. Written as a poem to a child before bed, the narrator speculates about all the wonderful things they can do together in the new day. Their adventures could involve walking with giants, flying to the moon, becoming witches, daring to become dragons, and much more. Endless possibilities are listed as their imaginations can take them anywhere. But, for now, it’s time to sleep.
A unique sense of movement
Picturebooks in verse are difficult to do well, so it is a great achievement that Falls demonstrates such skill in his poetry, expertise shown in the rhythm, flow and clever word choices.
The writing will inspire a sense of wonder in any reader, readying them to face the next day with anticipation. The illustrations are lovely; a cross between Jon Klassan and Maurice Sendak but with a unique sense of movement that is very much Falls’ own.
A nice detail to the story is placing the bedroom and home in a city setting—an environment that would benefit being represented more in picture-books. This is an excellent bedtime read that can be admired by children and grown-ups alike.
Lastly, we have a non-fiction picturebook that would be suited to slightly older readers; Glorious Goddesses of Ancient Ireland (Beehive Books) written by Karen Ward and illustrated by Paula McGloin.
In this book you can learn about nine different goddesses in Irish mythology; Áine, Aisling, Boann, Brigid, Danu, Ériu, Gráinne, the Cailleach and the Morrigan. From tales of goddesses altering the shape of landmarks in Ireland, controlling the elements, travelling across mythical lands, and determining the fate of men; the book tells all of these stories in a child-friendly manner.
Produced in a format similar to Sarah Webb’s and Lauren O’Neill’s Blazing a Trail (The O’Brien Press), this non-fiction book is packed with fascinating details that give us a snapshot into the lives of these iconic goddesses.
The pronunciation guide, glossary, and clear writing combine to make for an accessible read by those both familiar and unfamiliar with the stories. The illustrations are nothing short of extraordinary. There are small details and references to the lives of the goddesses surrounding their image, each page perfectly encapsulating a sense of awe. The illustration and story of Aisling is remarkable and worth exploring first – through you can read the stories in any order.
There is a rich variety of picturebooks available this season for you to enjoy. Despite the range of stories, characters, format and design, there is one commonality between them all which acts as a sign for a great picture-book: they will all leave you a little wonderstruck.
Ruth Ennis is a children’s literature writer based in Kildare. Her writing has been included in several publications and she was awarded an Arts Council Literature Bursary in 2021 and an Agility Award in 2022.