Bob Graham is an award-winning Australian author/illustrator. His whimsical stories are tender, childlike, adventurous, and kind. His families are messy, loving, and endearingly real, and his communities filled with “small heroes doing quiet deeds.” Graham explains that “As well as cosy home grown certainties…through books, children can imagine what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes. This is surely where empathy starts.…” And surely, that’s what we all need now.
In Vanilla Ice Cream (Candlewick, 2014; K-Gr 2), a hungry little sparrow visits a samosa stand in India in search of a meal. His life changes forever when he discovers a truckload of rice headed to the docks to be shipped overseas. As he forages greedily in an open bag, no one notices the little stowaway, who lands in a great city and eventually, at a café where a toddler sits in her stroller, as her grandparents are about to enjoy ice cream cones. When the family’s dog leaps for the sparrow, grandpa’s ice cream flies into his granddaughter’s lap, and her life, too, changes forever—for what could be better than an introduction to vanilla ice cream? “I wanted to give a small and seemingly unremarkable creature a story, for us to know that it has a life of its own and that it has worth and that by chance it might affect our own lives,” explains Graham. Ink-and-watercolor artwork filled with quiet details offers a variety of perspectives from close-up views of the samosa stand’s patrons to a sparrow’s-eye view of scenes below.
Sparrows make a difference once again in a bus called heaven (Candlewick, 2012; K-Gr 2). One day an old, abandoned bus with a hand-painted sign “heaven” suddenly appears in a no parking zone in front of Stella’s house in the city. Where the adult world sees an obstacle, the child sees an opportunity. “‘It could be…ours,’ she whispered.”
Curiosity gives way to enterprise as neighbors come together to give new life to the bus as a stationary community center in Stella’s driveway, complete with toys, games, food, and furnishings. The only problem is the wheels extend onto a public walk, so a tow truck arrives to take the bus to the junkyard. Young Stella suggests that the driver play her at table soccer—winner decides the fate of the bus. When the driver demands to know why he should bother, Stella explains that there are “sparrows nesting in the engine.” Needless to say, she wins, and so do her neighbors, who help push their bus to the vacant lot behind Stella’s house.
A sparrow again turns the tide in Max (Candlewick, 2000; PreS-Gr 1), the story of a baby superhero from a family of superheroes, complete with masks, capes, and the power to fly. Though he talked and walked early, the tot couldn’t get off the ground. His parents and grandparents worried, and his classmates teased, until the morning Max spied a baby bird fall from its nest. “Max saw it from his open window. This bird was not ready to fly. The baby bird fell. Max flew to save it.” After that, there was no stopping him, but would he follow in his parents’ footsteps, fighting criminals and bullies? “‘Not important,’ said Madame Thunderbolt. ‘Let’s call him a small hero doing quiet deeds. The world needs more of those.’”
With minimal text, How to Heal a Broken Wing (Candlewick, 2008; PreS-Gr 2) tells of another little boy who rescues a bird in trouble. “High above the city, no one heard the soft thud of feathers against glass.” Everyone in the bustling square is too busy to notice the felled creature, but Will sees and lifts the wounded pigeon, which his mother wraps in her scarf and carries home in her purse. As mother, father, and son nurse the patient back to health, a calendar and changing moon signify the passage of time “With rest…and time…and a little hope…a bird may fly again.” This beautiful book utilizes full spreads as well as small panels—akin to a wordless comic strip—to tell the story. In the beginning of the book, the bright colors of the small figure’s clothing on the street of gray skyscrapers draws readers’ eyes to the child. Throughout the book, Graham uses color to direct the eye and to highlight small details.
Like Stella, Kate is a child who knows how to make things happen. In “Let’s Get a Pup!” said Kate (Candlewick, 2003; K-Gr 2), the child’s lonely feet ache each night ever since Tiger the cat died. Then one sunny morning she awakens with new resolve…Her mom sees an ad for the animal rescue center, and they’re off. They see all sorts of dogs, but settle on Dave—small and cute and full of energy. But on the way out, they spy Rosy, “old and gray and broad as a table.” Reluctantly, they go home, but by morning they head right back to fetch the old girl. “Kate’s feet are no longer lonely under the blankets. It seems like Dave and Rosy have always been there. Their weight is comfortable and reliable, and will stop Kate’s bed from floating away into the night.” Graham knows what children need to feel grounded, and this caring, modern family (mom has a tattoo and nose ring), with all their domestic clutter, is all any child could want.
In Oscar’s Half Birthday (Candlewick, 2005; PreS-Gr 1), a family heads to “The half country…for a half birthday.” Baby Oscar is six months old today…what better way to celebrate than with a picnic? Mom, dad, big sister Millie, and Boris, the dog, all head out—Oscar in his stroller and Millie, with coat-hanger fairy wings and dinosaur puppet in hand, past the canal, through the woods, to a grassy meadow. “Oscar sits on the picnic blanket, swaying like a tightrope walker, trying to keep his balance” as people in the park gather round to ooh and aah and to sing “Happy Birthday” before the homemade chocolate cake is served. Graham’s writing about babies, children, and families, is playful and knowing, full of love and endearment. After bath time, the siblings conk out on the couch as mom and dad slow dance in the living room.
Graham’s whimsical touch reaches new heights in April and Esme Tooth Fairies (Candlewick, 2010; K-Gr 2), when the two young sisters in a family of tooth fairies—even their dog has wings—are summoned to the house of Daniel Dangerfield by the boy’s grandma. Though their mother insists that they are too young, April wisely replies, “…Mommy…children still lose their first teeth…and ducklings still have to take their first swim.” Having thus convinced their parents, the “ducklings” fly off into the night to the sleeping boy’s room only to find Daniel’s lost tooth floating in a large cup of water. April bravely dives in to retrieve it, but awakens the child in the process—something her father has warned her never to do. Still, they muddle through and the wind carries them home to two very proud parents who “…hugged them till their wings crackled.” Though their house seems ordinary at first glance, clever details such as a thimble sink, teacup tub, postage stamp painting, and tiny two-story house hidden behind a tree stump all reveal their minuscule—though bighearted—world.
The Silver Button (Candlewick, 2013; PreS-Gr 2) begins with a drawing of another duckling. Jodie lovingly draws this creature “…with a top hat, cane, and boots of the softest leather. On the boots, she put silver buttons: one…two…” Meanwhile, her baby brother Jonathan shakily takes his first step. In the next minute, a pigeon loses a feather, a man buys a loaf of bread, a soldier hugs his mom goodbye, a little girl and her granddad play in the leaves, a blackbird finds a worm, a homeless woman pushes her worldly goods in a shopping cart, and “…phones rang in a thousand offices and pockets…Then down came Jonathan on his little pink knees.” Jodie alerts their mom that the baby has taken his first step, and adds the last silver button to the duck’s boots. A baby is born, two dogs play in the sand, a tanker heads to China…all in the space of a minute—just long enough for that first step. Again, small, but meaningful moments celebrate the life around us, and signature ink-and-watercolor illustrations convey both the poignant and mundane in our world.
Similarly, How the Sun Got to Coco’s House (Candlewick, 2015; PreS-Gr 1) describes how the rising sun connects us. It makes shadows in Jung Su’s footsteps, balances on the wing of a plane, waits outside an elderly woman’s window, catches a father and son off to market before it “…barged straight through Coco’s window!” After traversing the globe throughout the night, the sun is finally free to spend a winter’s day with the little girl and her friends as they frolic in the snow and build a snowman. Says Graham, “There is nothing more predictable than the rising of the sun, and in the writing of this book, I knew that there was nothing more certain than that it would eventually burst through Coco’s window and light up her day.” Spare, poetic text is paired with generous watercolor-and-ink illustrations to capture the sun’s sojourn across the globe, touching the lives of creatures young and old in the city and the country.
Slightly older, new readers will delight in the author’s Tales from the Waterhole (Candlewick, 2004; K-Gr 3). Four chapters with names as intriguing as “Fruit Salad Swimsuit” and “Daredevil Stunt” offer entertaining tales of Morris the crocodile and his myriad animal friends. “Summer on the sweltering African savanna has never been so much fun!” states the book’s blurb. Moms in silly bathing suits, boys trying to impress girls, family vacations, and shopping for new party clothes are universal experiences served up with humor and good nature. Those who search will almost always find a lovely, personal note from the author somewhere on his book jackets or author notes. “About Tales from the Waterhole, he says, ‘In the making of this book, I have been able to send my characters down to swim and play at the waterhole for endless hours—unaccompanied by their parents. What freedom! I have heard that it can get dangerous at dusk around a waterhole. Well, here they string up colored lights, dance, and take party photos. I might just go and live there.’” Readers will feel the same about Graham’s kind, unexceptional stories—with all that’s happening in our lives today, who wouldn’t like to lose themselves in the world of Bob Graham?
VANILLA ICE CREAM. Text copyright © 2014 by Bob Graham. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.
A BUS CALLED HEAVEN. Text copyright © 2012 by Bob Graham. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.
OSCAR’S HALF BIRTHDAY. Text copyright © 2005 by Bob Graham. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.
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