The September Read Aloud theme is picture books that deal with big issues. The big issues explored in the books selected are: the Stolen Generations, colonisation, war, refugees, climate change, environmental issues, the ethics associated with the mining of diamonds (slaves, exploitation, “blood diamonds”), homelessness and grief. These books were chosen because they tell a story in a way that is accessible to children and they also provide a sense of hope.

’The Rabbits’ by John Marsden and Shaun Tan is a story about the devastating impact and consequences the European colonists had on the Australian Indigenous people. This story begins with the arrival of the white rabbits (the Europeans) to a land inhabited by animals that look similar to possums. The story explores the dispossession from land, culture and family. The simple sentences on each page are powerful and coupled with the illustrations have an enormous impact, one that has been indelible for me. This book serves as a gateway to explore the gross injustices against the First Nations people in an accessible way for children.

‘Sorry Day’ by Coral Vass and illustrated by Dub Leffler is an important story that all children should hear. It is the story about the Australian government saying sorry to the Indigenous children who were taken away from their families, way of life and culture; stripping them of their identity. There are two stories explored in this book, one based on past events and one occurs in the present, these are told on alternate double page spreads. There is the story of the day the former  Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said “sorry” on behalf of the Australian government. Intertwined with that story is a story from the past when young Indigenous children were taken from their families. The text, together with the life like illustrations is so powerful.  Leffler uses different colour palettes to make the story come alive and separates the different times – sepia tones for the time period when the Indigenous children were taken from their families and full colour is used for the story revolving around the speech.  The vivid images offer a heartbreaking hint of the intense fear, trauma and sheer horror the Indigenous children, their families and community experienced.  At the back of this book further information about National Sorry Day has been included.

‘The Day War Came’ by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Rebecca Cobb is a moving poetic narrative that was written in response to the UK government refusing to give sanctuary to 3000 unaccompanied child refugees in 2016. This is a powerful story that begins with a young girl on an ordinary day enjoying time with her Mum, Dad and baby brother and then going to school. While at school the war came. What follows is a description of what she observed and experienced. The girl then tells of her lonely, harrowing and arduous and journey fleeing the war and arriving in a new country and a refugee camp. She is without her family and has no context to understand what is happening. What follows seems unfathomable as the little girl has doors slammed in her face and a teacher refusing to let her join her classroom as there is no available chair. The girl returns to her hut. While curled up in the hut a boy comes offering a chair and informs the girl that his friends are also with him and they have chairs too. The illustrations have a naivety to them, yet together with the text are so extraordinarily powerful. This story highlights the impact and cost of war through the eyes of an innocent child. This story also shows that tolerance and compassion inspires courageous acts of kindness that are force for change.   

‘Anisa’s Alphabet’ by Mike Dumbleton and illustrated by Hannah Sommerville is a picture book told in rhyming text. This book is about Anisa’s moving story of her refugee journey from a war torn county to a new land in the hope for freedom. Each letter of the alphabet is used to reveal another key part of Anisa’s story which is told from her perspective. The illustrations add to the text as they reveal so much about Anisa’s experiences, as well as those of her family and other refugees with her. It is interesting to note that the refugees depicted in this book are often illustrated in silhouette form, or outlined with their backs facing the reader in contrast to Anisa and her family who are prominent in the illustrations. The refugees we do not ‘see’ in this book remind me that many individual refugees stories are not heard, or told and that refugees are often reported in the media as a collective group, faceless. Hannah’s illustrations in muted tones convey the threatening and often dire situation that Anisa and her family face, while the coloured drawings by Anisa that are included capture her optimism and hope.  Even though the themes are difficult and heavy, Mike Dumbleton and Hannah Sommerville have told this story in a way that is accessible for children. This thought provoking picture book will spark many conversations about refugees and their experiences.

‘Home And Away’ by John Marsden and Matt Ottley  is a dramatic picture book for older readers – upper primary school and junior secondary school aged children. The pictures in this book really are worth a thousand words – they are powerful, arresting and heartbreaking. This is a story about an Australian family who find themselves in a war and become refugees placed in a detention camp. This story is confronting, but is sure to open the readers mind to the terror, loss, despair and heartache of the journey of refugees.

‘Diamonds’ by Armin Greder is mostly a wordless picture book that explores the ethics associated with the mining of diamonds. This confronting book begins with a conversation between a curious young girl and her mother. The young girl is intrigued by her mother’s diamond earrings and begins a line of questioning about diamonds, inquiring about their cost, where to purchase them, how they are sourced and in what countries they are mined. The mother tells her daughter that diamonds can be mined in Africa. The daughter questions her Mum about Amina, their nanny, and asks if she comes from Africa. The daughter tries to make sense of the fact that Amina comes from Africa and she isn’t rich, nor does she have diamonds. The mother abruptly ends the conversation. This powerful story continues through black and white, highly expressive illustrations. It follows the journey of a diamond from the mines, where the miners who are slaves are subject to harsh conditions and inhumane treatment; to the negotiations and sales that take place involving the gems; to the jeweller and eventually into the hands of the consumer unaware of the beginnings and exploitation involved with sourcing these gems. The illustrations show how the profits from the sales may be used for nefarious purposes (for example, to pay for conflicts) The detailed afterword provides an analysis into Greder’s work and more insight into the diamond industry and is a must read. This profound, confronting and enlightening graphic exploration of the diamond trade challenges readers to think about the human impact of diamond mining.

There’s a Rang-Tan in My Bedroom’ by James Sellick and illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon (published in collaboration with Greenpeace) is a story about the destruction of rainforests to plant trees for palm oil production and the impact this is having on the orangutans. This book contains a foreword by Emma Thompson where she briefly discusses the destruction of the rainforest in Indonesia, the planting of palm trees and she calls for action to be proactive about causing change. This story is told in rhyme and begins with a young girl surprised to discover an orangutan in her bedroom.  This orangutan is objecting to the chocolate, shampoo and cookies in the house. The girl is curious as to why the orangutan is there and wants to hear the orangutan’s story. The orangutan tells the girl that there are humans in the forest, destroying the trees for cosmetic and food products. The story continues with the impacts this has on the orangutan and its family. After hearing this the young girl vows to save the orangutans home. She sets about sharing the orangutan’s story and inspiring others to join the cause to become activists for change. After the story there is further information and facts about orangutans, palm oil production (including palm oil grown responsibly) and ways that readers can help, including practical suggestions and useful information to assist children write a campaign letter. This is an excellent book to inspire further conversations and research into the plight of the orangutan as well as irresponsible palm oil production.  

‘The Giant and the Sea’ by Trent Jamieson and illustrated by Rovina Cai is a picture book about climate change. Trent said during the Zoom launch of this book that he wanted to write this story in a way that was “digestible” and not overwhelming for readers. It is a story of hope, activism and taking a stand for what you believe in. It reinforces the idea that we are the caretakers of our precious earth. Trent Jamieson also shared at the book launch the exciting news that rights for the book have been sold to create a short film. The lyrical text and beautiful illustrations in this book make it a work of art. This is a book that should be read, savoured and revisited by all children.

‘Mama Ocean’ by Jane Jolly and Sally Heinrich is a charming cautionary tale about protecting our oceans. This picture book will transport you to the depths of the ocean as you follow the wise and majestic Mama Ocean, whose health reflects the quality of the marine environment. In this story, the strong and commanding Mama Ocean becomes sad and her concerned children (the sea creatures, of which there are many represented in this stunning story) attempt to lift her spirits by presenting her with attractive ‘gifts’ that they source from the ocean. Unfortunately, their resourcefulness does not seem to help Mama Ocean. Mama Ocean becomes increasingly unwell. The sea creatures are not aware of the damaging effects of their ‘gifts’ they found bobbing around in their home and how they are responsible for making Mama Ocean sick.  After deep reflection and a desire to help Mama Ocean, the sea creatures come to the realisation that the gifts are dangerous and harmful to the ocean. They work together to rid the ocean of this toxic pollution. The detail in the expressive illustrations on each page beckons the reader to revisit them and appreciate the many details. This story will no doubt be a call to action to inspire young readers to adopt sustainable practices and environmental responsibility.

‘I Saw Pete and Pete Saw Me’ by Maggie Hutchins and illustrated by Evie barrow is a tender story about noticing what is happening in the community and showing kindness. In this book, a small boy on a crowded footpath notices Pete, a man without a home and he is instantly drawn to Pete’s friendly face. The small boy takes the time to have a chat with Pete and while doing so Pete draws him some special pictures.  After meeting Pete, the young boy is excited to tell everyone about his new friend, Pete. The local businesses then start to notice Pete too and show kindness to him. The young boy and Pete exchange art and continue to develop their friendship. As their friendship strengthens the young boy is concerned for Pete and his welfare, for example on a stormy night when the young boy is tucked up and warm in his bed, his thoughts turn to Pete and he is sad thinking about his friend. One day Pete is no longer in his usual space. The boy is desperate for some information about Pete or a sign that Pete is alright. The boy attempts to communicate with Pete and is rewarded with a response that only he is privy to observing. The charming and warm illustrations have a sense of joyful innocence to them. They are captivating and bright.  This story inspires all of us to notice the vulnerable and to act with kindness, without judgement. The young boy shows us that kindness is powerful and it has a ripple effect on the whole community. ($1 from each sale will be donated to The Big Issue)

‘Waiting for Wolf’ by author and illustrator Sandra Diekmann is a beautiful moving fable about friendship, loss and grief that concludes with a powerful message of hope. Wolf and fox share a special joy filled friendship, thoroughly enjoying their time and adventures together, until one day wolf is gone. While fox grieves for wolf, there is a beautiful moment of realisation, an awakening, which reminds fox of the memorable and happy times he spent with wolf. The fox chooses to embrace life in honour of Wolf and takes some comfort from the wonderful times they shared that will never be lost.  This book empathetically explores loss and even though this is a complex and devastating topic filled with such intense feelings, the story has been written in a way that lifts your heart at the end. The detailed illustrations are captivating. Be sure to look out for the bird too (which seems to be a symbol of hope) featured in the stunning illustrations.

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