Erika’s Story

I discovered this book when I was looking for picture books to go along with our Year 8 novel and film study of The boy in the striped pyjamas, by John Boyne. It’s titled Erika’s Story and is authored by Ruth Vander Zee, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti.

Our boys are going to have a Holocaust survivor as their guest speaker shortly so this is a book well worth pointing out to them. Erika’s Story is also about the Holocaust, but it is also about the love a mother had for her child, and the extraordinary act she performed to ensure that her baby was given the chance to survive.

It is a biography of Erika, whose parents were Jewish and the book tells of what Erika imagines might have happened to them. She really doesn’t know. In fact she knows very little of her background at all. What she does know is that her mother was on a train, heading to a concentration camp, when she threw tiny Erika, bundled up in blankets, off the train, no doubt hoping that someone would find her and care for her. Vander Zee writes:

“On her way to death, my mother threw me to life.”

Looking at Ruth Vander Zee’s website I discovered that she has written several interesting other books, including one I own, Mississipi Morning, which explores the memories of young white boy who gradually comes to realise the racial hatred within his town and the role of the Ku Klux Klan. Her other two books are Eli Remembers and Always With You.

There are Teacher’s notes for Erika’s Story and you can find them here.

The illustrations are beautifully drawn by Roberto Innocenti, who illustrated Rose Blanche. Most illustrations in Erika’s Story are sepia toned, almost as if we are looking at a snapshot and reminiscing. The illustrations Erika appears in, however, have some colour. She is represented by pink. A full page colour illustration at the beginning of the book shows Erika telling her story to the author. Later we see a pink bundle being thrown from the train, and finally there is a double page colour illustration showing Erika as a child, looking at the train going past her home. Perhaps the use of colour represents hope and a future. In the sepia toned illustrations, the Jewish people do not have faces shown. We are shown the very crowded conditions they had to travel in though, and the belongings they brought with them for their journey. Their clothing is not the warm clothing they would have needed by the time the train reached its snowy destination.

You can view the illustrations over at the Children’s Book Illustration Blog.

Posted in Erika's story, Holocaust, Roberto Innocenti, Ruth Vander Zee, War | 2 Comments

Queenie – One elephant’s story

I came across this book in our school library recently and it’s a great one. I was drawn to the book for two reasons. One is that I remember going to the Melbourne Zoo as a youngster and loved watching the elephants and actually riding on them, although I must have been very young because apparently elephant rides were stopped by 1962. In the early 1960’s it seemed that every year we visited the zoo with the school and one of the highlights was a ride around the zoo on an elephant. Certainly something that wouldn’t be done today, but it was great fun. The second reason is that, as a family history researcher, I often visit the Public Record Office of Victoria website and came across a document relating to this story.

The story of Queenie was written by Corinne Fenton and is beautifully illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe. It’s a very nostalgic look at the Melbourne Zoo in the first half of the 20th Century, and the illustrations show just how different the animals were treated at that time and the types of enclosures they had. Today no elephant in the Melbourne Zoo would be expected to walk around taking children for rides, and the enclosures are much closer to their natural habitat. We can watch them live and play today, as they would in the wild.

Queenie was brought to the zoo from India and by 1905 she was old enough to carry passengers. She patiently gave rides to many people over the next decades, and she was a much loved animal to visit at the zoo. Sadly Queenie crushed her keeper in 1944. An inquest followed, and its a piece of correspondence from this inquiry that is now with the Public Records Office. You can view it here, along with several original photos of Queenie.

When reading this story with older children, you might like to have a lesson on the use of Trove. Children might like to research some of the older newspaper stories about Queenie, and there are many. Some are about the death of her keeper, but there are other photos and general stories about Queenie as well. Here’s an example of one such story from the Cairns Post, 20 September 1944.

There is a podcast over at the ABC site which would make a great lead in to the story. Corinne Fenton discusses her book and some of the Queenie stories she has come across. Several older listeners rang in to tell of their memories of Queenie and these can be a lovely lead in to oral story telling. This podcast also explores whether Queenie really meant to kill her keeper or whether it was accidental. That is something that could also be discussed with older children. Just be aware that the interview is a little way into this podcast.

Corinne Fenton has a website which will lead you to her other books. You can visit it here. Teaching notes and activity ideas can be found here.

Finally you can find a review of the book, published in The Age here.

There are several other books which would go along with this picture book. Elephant Baby by Tania Cox and Ann James comes to mind. Zoo by Anthony Browne would also be useful to look at particularly the enclosures, comparing them with today’s enclosures and obtaining some understanding of a zoo from an animal’s perspective. There may be non fiction books based around zoos that give some history of animals within zoos. Children could explore the role of zoos, both now and in the past. They may find historical photos of zoo enclosures to give them some insights into how ideas have changed.

Further research into elephants, especially Indian elephants, could also be encouraged. The social structure of elephants has been the subject of many documentaries and children would probably find it intriguing, particularly in light of the fact that little Queenie refused to leave the ship without the bull elephant which accompanied her.

I mentioned Peter Gouldthorpe’s illustrations early on. I love how he has given us a colour photo of scenes with Queenie, but the outside edges have been drawn like pencil sketches. Have a look at the two examples below. This is something I would be exploring with children, and perhaps they could model their own drawings on Gouldthorpe’s style, particularly if this book is read following an excursion to the zoo.

Posted in Australian books, Corinne Fenton, Peter Gouldthorpe, Queenie - One elephant's story | 3 Comments

Brian Selznik

I have spent some time over the holidays exploring the books of Brian Selznik recently. He’s written The Invention of Hugo Cabret and more recently Wonderstruck. You might know Hugo Cabret because the film Hugo is based on this book. It’s a wonderful film and a great book.

In both books Selznick has created an amazing mix of picture book, graphic novel and film, resulting in books to treasure. The illustrations in Hugo Cabret are wonderful and you can see much of the story unfolding through these black and white illustrations. Along the way there are chapters of text which tell the reader more of the story. Blended together they tell us about Hugo and we can piece together the mystery that surrounds Hugo, the old man, a young girl and the automaton that Hugo is trying to restore.

Set in Paris, this is a book to read and explore, then read some more. If you can see the movie then do so. It’s wonderful.

Watch this video to hear how the author got his ideas for writing The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Head on over to the Hugo Cabret website for lots more information about the book too. It’s at and there’s lots of things to explore there.

Selznick’s latest book is Wonderstruck. It’s structured in a very similar way to Hugo Cabret, in that there are chapters of text then chapters of black and white illustrations telling more about the story. There are two stories running along side each other here, one set in New York in 1927, the other in 1977. The story set in 1927 is told completely through illustration, whilst the 1977 story is told in text. Eventually the two stories come together.

As with Hugo Cabret, there is a website devoted to the book. You can find out heaps more about the story by visiting:

Have a look at this video to see more about Selnick’s ideas that led him to write this book.

NOTE: This post has been cross posted at the MClibrary blog, which I also run.

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Jeannie Baker – Mirror

Jeannie Baker is a well known artist and children’s book author/illustrator. Her most recent book is Mirror, which today was announced as the joint winner of the Picture Book of the Year. Well deserved it is too.

Some of our students will be like me and love it from its design point of view. The cover opens and we see two stories, each one mirroring the other. The left hand side introduction is written in English, and the family depicted, through collage, is from Sydney, Australia. The right hand side has the same introduction, but written in Arabic and the young boy in this part of the story lives in Morocco with his family. We are told that each of the stories are designed to be read side by side.

Jeannie Baker’s books are quite often wordless, and this one is no exception. Apart from the initial introduction telling readers that the two families, although different and in different parts of the world, still have some things that are the same. As we open each of the stories, we can explore the illustrations to see just how different, but how similar, these families, and indeed families all over the world, are.

Visually there is much to explore as readers move through a day in Sydney and Morocco with these two boys and their families. Baker’s collage work is stunning, and the original pieces have been touring Australia, visiting many art galleries around the country. I particularly love her artwork in the Morrocan part of the story. The landscape is wonderful, and we can see red sand and rock in some spreads, with lush green crops growing for the family’s food. The market scene is another that I love. One has his seeds and spices set on the ground in sacks, which another has vegetables spread out ready to sell. The visual literacy that could be developed as students, or indeed adults, pore through each of the stories, is endless. There is always something new to find.

The video below might help you to understand the design of the book better, and it certainly gives you a taste of the illustrations you will find.

You might enjoy reading a review of Mirror, and also a blog post chatting with Jeannie Baker. There’s also an ABC radio podcast where you can hear an interview of Jeannie Baker discussing Mirror. Finally go to Jeannie Baker’s website to get further information about her and her books. Dates and venues for the travelling exhibition of Mirror are listed here too.

Please note that this post is cross posted on my school library blog, at

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Revisiting – Refugees

David Miller’s books are always a delight and Refugees is one which has a very powerful message.  It tells a very simple story of two ducks whose habitat is destroyed by progress.  With huge earth moving equipment coming in to develop the land, the ducks are forced to move out of their home in the swamp and its island. In fact one illustration shows the bull dozer destroying the swamp and the water pouring away. The ducks move around to different locations but are unable to find a suitable new place where they will have food and fresh water. After many possible, but unsuitable places, the two ducks are finally found, rescued and relocated to another swamp where they can live safely.

The book has a strong environmental message. We see the habitat being destroyed to make way for development, forcing the wildlife to find another home. It is not easy finding just the right place though and the story follows the little ducks through their misfortunes as they look for their new home. Duck hunting is mentioned in one double page spread which could lead the way into a discussion of hunting as a sport: a debate could be set up to ensure that both sides of the argument are heard. Alternatively, a letter could be written to the government expressing a view.

Paralells will be made with refugees travelling from their own country to live in Australia. The blurb of the book says:

“Their journey in search of a new place to live exposes them to danger, rejection and violence before they are given a new home.”

It is worthwhile exploring the story in relation to real life stories of refugees. Is Miller’s story of two ducks similar to those of human refugees looking for a new home?

Any of Miller’s books might be used as inspiration for art lessons. His artwork is in the form of paper sculpture and is exquisite. Looking at the illustrations of the birds in the book we can clearly see their individually cut feathers.  One page shows a dog peeking through the reeds and the amount of work which must have been put in to cut all of the dog’s fur so finely, would have been phenominal.

One of my favourite illustrations is the one below, where Miller has imagined that the ducks might have taken the place of the yellow ducks moving across the top of a fairground entertainment. Some creative writing might explain why the ducks chose there to spend the night and how they were woken in the morning.

Miller has collaborated with others on books, such as Boo to a Goose with Mem Fox, and has written and illustrated alone. Many of his books are illustrated by using his paper sculpture technique and they are all well worth exploring.

Teachers Notes for Refugees can be found here.

An interview with David Miller can be found here.

Posted in Australian books, Australian illustrators, David Miller, Refugees | Leave a comment

Possum Tale

This gorgeous picture book came across my desk recently, and I’m thrilled it did. Possum Tale is a picture book, written and illustrated by Lucienne Noontil, and it’s just charming. The story begins with a family of ringtail possums, all cramped up in their nest in a gum tree. Mum tells Rusty that it’s time he looked for his own space, so he packs his backpack and heads out into the world to find a home of his own.

Poor Rusty finds that many places that seem to be perfect for his home, are really not quite what they seem and there’s a surprise or two along the way, both for Rusty, and for the readers who travel along with him.

The illustrations are lovely. The flowering gum trees, so important for our Australian wildlife, are beautifully drawn. There’s a lovely double page spread of Rusty, on the branch of a pink flowering gum, looking closely at a hole in the tree trunk, thinking it is a possible nest. 

I really like the close up illustrations of those “surprises” that pop out of several hiding spots, frightening Rusty away.  They are big and bold, and the message for Rusty is very clear.

My favourite illustration though, is one of Rusty crouched underneath his blue umbrella on the roof of a house, sheltering from the rain. As the rain drips off the umbrella, it looks like poor Rusty is just so sad, with nowhere to call home. Very poignant, but as the reader explores the illustration, they can see that a possible solution might not be too far away.

One of the reasons this book appealed to me is that I live in an area where possums share our habitat. Currently we have two, mother and baby, residing in our garage, and we are preparing a possum box for them, hoping that they will be like Rusty, and move out into it. We see them coming out each night, and whilst they can be a nuisance at times, we love seeing them around our yard, and quite often have them climbing our deck near our back door. Many children reading this book will have their own possum stories to tell, I’m sure.

Suburbia has taken away much of the habitat needed by wildlife.  Houses are larger, and trees are being removed. We need to work out how we can live harmoniously with our native animals, and this story depicts one solution.

I think children will adore this story. Rusty the ringtail possum is adorable and they will love following where he, with his little blue backpack, looks for his new home.  You can find out more about Lucienne Noontil here, or contact her at for more information about Possum Tale. There’s also an interview with Lucienne here, where she gives some information about the processes she went through to get her book published.  There’s some great advice for young authors there too!

Congratulations Lucienne.  I look forward to the next book!

Posted in Australian books, Lucienne Noontil, Picture books, Possum Tale | 1 Comment

In Flanders Fields

A lovely story about a young digger who, on Christmas Day during World War 1, steps out of the safety of his trench to release a robin, trapped in barbed wire. All the while the enemy looks on with many rifles aimed at him, but they allow him to return to his trench unharmed. As he walks away from his German enemies he hears them singing “Stille nacht, heilige nacht…” and when he nears his own trench he hears his own fellow soldiers continuing the Christmas carol with “all is calm, all is bright…”. 

The illustrations are wonderfully drawn in blacks, greys and browns, depicting the starkness of the war landscape, whilst a touch of red and orange come from the tiny stove in the trench and the trapped robin. We can see the cramped quarters of the men sitting around in their respective trenches, with both rats and bodies prevalent.  There is much to explore in each of the illustrations.

The author comments that this story was inspired by the 1929 film version of All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Remarque) so In Flanders Fields would be a great book to read and investigate when studying either the film version, or the book of All Quiet on the Western Front

It would also be fascinating to pair the book with a reading of the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae.  Students would be able to see the similarities between the picture story and the poem.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

You can read some reviews of the book here and there’s an article here. Here’s another great review.

An online visit to the In Flanders Fields Museum would be interesting for students too.  There is a timeline of events there, McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, and lots of other things to explore.

You can read more about Norman Jorgensen at his website.

Teaching notes for In Flanders Fields are available here.

Posted in Australian books, Australian illustrators, Christmas, War | Leave a comment