For kids and their parents alike, a good picture book will combine words and colour to transport readers into magical realms of pure storytelling pleasure.

2019 was a rich year for picture books, with new and established Australian authors and illustrators spinning tales of imagination and from the heart. Here, Roaring Stories resident children’s book expert Bronwyn Richens shares her top six. 

1 – The Painted Ponies by Alison Lester

When Alison Lester decides it’s time to write another story about horses, I just sit back in delight and let her take me for the ride.

Lester grew up with horses. This lifelong love affair of hers spills out onto every page and seeps into every word.

The Painted Ponies follows young Matilda as she attempts to tame a group of wild horses. Her grandmother, Lucky Star, also gradually reveals how she got her name.

Lester’s rhyme is pitch perfect and the lovely repetition of “the gold palomino, the chestnut, the bay, the pinto, the brown and the dappled grey” makes your mouth gallop along with the ponies.

We learn about the call of home, belonging, the nature of being wild and untamed and, of course, love. All great stories have love at their heart.

2 – The Return of Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey

I’m a fan of Thelma, a HUGE fan. So, when I heard there was a sequel, I was rather nervous. How could Blabey possibly repeat the wonder and joy that was the original Thelma?

Fear no longer!

Thelma is back, bigger and better than ever.

After her first experience, she is still feeling stage-shy. Fear of failure and ridicule is high on her list of reasons for not going back into the limelight. But her trusty, loyal friend knows better. He tells her: Girl, it’s time to get your sparkle back on! And with his support, Thelma bravely goes out to conquer the world and to spread her sparkly love and joy.

Thank goodness!

Just like Thelma, we should all shake off the doubters and haters because after all, the world really does need unicorns!

3 – The Tiny Star by Mem Fox & Freya Blackwood

The cover and title suggest to me a Christmas story. A modern retelling of the nativity story at the very least. And it is not that at all. It is about the wonder and miracle of a new life, and everyday life after that, and a long life, well-lived.

The Tiny Star is a circle of life story.

Fox takes us on a journey of a whole life – from birth to death. We see the everyday moments of life: first steps, first words, going to school, leaving home, work, marriage, children, grandchildren, illness and death. Fox shows us how to grieve for the ones we lose by remembering the happy times, by celebrating the life that was and by honouring all the little moments that make up a life.

She includes the idea of a star in the night sky watching over us to help young children come to terms with the death of someone they love.

It is gently done, with grace and kindness and hope.

4 – Lights Out, Leonard by Josh Pyke & Chris Nixon

A great read-aloud story about a little boy scared of the things that hide in the dark.

With lots of fabulous descriptive rhyming words and exasperated sighs from the long-suffering parents…until a mysterious book turns up that includes a list on how to terrify beasts.

I won’t give away all the secrets, but it turns out that things like clean teeth, goodnight kisses and teddy bears are great ways to combat scary creatures!

A book that will save both parents and kids struggling with their night time routine.

Recommended for ages 3+.

5 – Horatio Squeak by Karen Foxlee & Evie Barrow

Timid, shy Horatio goes off to visit unknown friends on his own after getting an anonymous friend invite in the mail (is this going to be a cautionary tale about online safety)?

The new friends turn out to be three kittens who like to play with mice (is this going to be a bullying story)?

However, mother cat insists that they play nicely as she teaches them how to be polite and kind.

Horatio also helps the kittens to see the point of view of a small bird whom they initially think it might be fun to ‘play with’.

In the end, Horatio Squeak is a tale about being brave, reaching out to make new friends and standing up for what you know is right.

Delightful and charming, as I’ve come to expect from Foxlee.

6 – Baby Business by Jasmine Seymour 

Baby Business is a wonderful story for new parents, to share and share with their children one way to welcome a new baby to country. However it’s not just baby business, but also mother, grandmother and aunty business.

Respect, love and tradition imbues every page as we follow the rituals of a smoking ceremony of welcome.

I loved this a lot.

I loved it for its celebration of new life, diversity and belonging. For its pride in our heritage and traditions. For its openness in sharing personal rituals and beliefs.

It’s a book that reminds us that we belong to Country; that it doesn’t belong to us. That we should only ‘take what we need and no more‘ then ‘give back what you can, and help your Mudgin (family) and Nura (country) when they need it.’

Durag words are scattered naturally throughout the text.

Seymour’s beautiful, warm earthy illustrations create tender scenes of family, women and country. The background has a soft, dreamy quality which draws the eye towards the action around the sharp-focused baby on each page.

By Bronwyn Richens