A Novel Prescription: 2021 Standout Picture Books (Australian Edition)

This is a tangent from bibliotherapy. But we’re all so weary around about now.

We all need short bursts of sunshine to lift our spirits. Not to mention good books to read to our young children.

Covers of 15 Australian picture books arranged in a grid titled: 2021 Standout Picture Books Australian Edition

Picture books are just what the doctor ordered ~ a format that even the most ADHD-frazzled, despondent home-schooling parent or teacher can respond to. One that marries words with illustrations, ideas with images. Condensed liquid sweetness mixed with something substantial to chew on.

Like bubble tea, but nutritious

In the end of year rush, I missed posting about my favourite books of the year. But then I came across this blogpost of 2021 Picture Book Picks, chosen by picture book creators. I love how Anitra acknowledges that creators read a LOT of picture books, and are in a unique position to choose gems otherwise missed.

I’ve decided to do an Australian version of Anitra’s post and ask early career and emerging picture book creators to help me curate this list.

You may notice there are two double-ups. One of the contributors mentioned she likes it when books are mentioned twice on a list, because it emphasises that she should look out for it! So I’ve left them in.

Here are some favourite Australian picture books of 2021.

2021 Standout Picture Books (Australian Edition)

Inda Ahmad Zahri

Inda Ahmad Zahri (@inda_binda), author of picture books SALIH and NIGHT LIGHTS and forthcoming 2022 title TWICE, recommends THE BOY WHO TRIED TO SHRINK HIS NAME by Sandhya Parappukkaran, illustrated by Michelle Pereira (Bright Light):

Zimdalamashkermishkada struggles with his name as his new school. He tries all sorts of ways to shrink it, but perhaps there’s a reason why it keeps springing back to its original glory. A perfect marriage of clever writing and fantastic illustration that not only drives the narrative of identity and courage, but celebrates the Indian heritage of both creators in the food, traditional dress and limited palette of orange, green and white. 

Dr Lara Cain Gray

Dr Lara Cain Gray, Specialist Librarian at Library For All and blogger at CharmingLanguage.com, recommends THE COLOUR OF MUSIC by Lisa Tiffin, illustrated by Matt Ottley (Midnight Sun Publishing).

This stunning book balances lyrical prose with sublime imagery, evoking our multisensory relationship with music. Each page explores an element of music, from peaceful arpeggios to weeping chords, as a young girl, Molly, is immersed in representative colours and imaginative responses. The adventure is inspired by ‘synaesthesia’, which is worth learning more about, but will resonate equally with anyone who has ever popped on some headphones and escaped to amazing places.

Kerri Day

Kerri Day, winner of CYA Picture Book competition 2021, runner-up of Writers Unleashed NSW 2021, and author of two picture book titles coming in 2023 with Windy Hollow Books, recommends JETTY JUMPING by Andrea Rowe, illustrated by Hannah Sommerville (Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing).

This exquisitely illustrated love letter to summer introduces us to Milla who is challenged by her fear. She longs to join her friends and leap fearlessly from the jetty but she just can’t. However, a slip and a tumble reveal the wonder of the sea and her own strength and sense of discovery. A joyful book to share. Children will easily identify with the characters and their emotions and adult readers will find nostalgia for their own childhood within the pages. The cover illustration invites the reader in to share a glorious summer by the sea.

Kirsten Ealand

Kirsten Ealand, Winner of 2021 Write Links Mentorship and Runner Up for 2021 CBCA – NSW Branch Aspiring Writers Mentorship Program, recommends THE BOY WHO TRIED TO SHRINK HIS NAME by Sandhya Parappukkaran, illustrated by Michelle Pereira (Bright Light). 

THE BOY WHO TRIED TO SHRINK HIS NAME is about a boy called Zimdalamashkermishkada, whose long name trips him up every day like undone shoelaces. He thinks he wants a shorter name for school, but as he learns how to do tricks at the skate park with his new friend, he also learns how to embrace his tricky name. This book beautifully explores those dual desires of most school children – to be seen and to fit in, unfortunately felt to be conflicting by many children. I LOVE that by the end of this book I can remember Zimdalamashkermishkada’s name so easily!

Carla Fitzgerald

Carla Fitzgerald (@carlafitzgeraldauthor), author of forthcoming 2022 titles, KEEPING UP WITH THE DACHSHUNDS and HOW TO BE PRIME MINISTER AND SURVIVE GRADE FIVE recommends WALKING YOUR HUMAN by Liz Ledden, illustrated by Gabrielle Petruso (Larrikin House) and ALL DOGS BARK by Catherine Meatheringham, illustrated by Deb Hudson (Windy Hollow Books):

I’m being a bit cheeky nominating two but I couldn’t separate these fabulous doggy titles. I love picture books with a simple but brilliant premise and these two are executed to perfection. The humour and warmth shines through in the very relatable, WALKING YOUR HUMAN and the illustrations will have you in stitches.

ALL DOGS BARK is perfect for younger picture book readers and my littlest person always joins in for the refrain. It’s also prompted some great discussions about different countries and cultures.

Liz Ledden

Liz Ledden (@liz_ledden), author of TULIP AND BRUTUS, WALKING YOUR HUMAN and an upcoming 2023 title, plus co-host of One More Page podcast loves A PAIR OF PEARS AND AN ORANGE by Anna McGregor (Scribble Kids’ Books).

A unique commentary on friendship dynamics, with a limited colour palette and zesty wordplay. It’s clever, cute, fruity and fun!

Rory H Mather

Rory Mather, author of VLAD’S BAD BREATH, EASTER HAT-ASTROPHE, VLAD’S IN LOVE, GET BACK IN YOUR BOOKS!, ROARY THE LION and MONSTER SCHOOL RULES recommends LET’S BUILD A HOUSE, by Mike Lucas, illustrated by Daron Parton (Hachette):

2021 was definitely a great year for picture books in Australia with fantastic books from old favourites and new kids on the block. That being said, few books stood out as much as Let’s Build a House written by Mike Lucas and illustrated by Daron Parton. As the title suggests this book takes the reader on a step by step journey of building a house…but it does so much more than that. Mikes writing has three of the attributes that make a picture book stand out, rhyme, repetition and humour which serve as solid foundations for Darons brilliant illustrations which provide the reader with lots of opportunities to explore the building process. Reading this story one cannot help smiling, it is a true delight and the best part is….it has a sequel called Let’s Build a Backyard arriving in April 2022.

Catherine Meatheringham

Catherine Meatheringham (@catherinemeatheringham), author of MY POSSUM PLAYS THE DRUMS, illustrated by Max Hamilton, and ALL DOGS BARK, illustrated by Deb Hudson, recommends WHEN THE WATERHOLE DRIES UP by Kaye Baillie, illustrated by Max Hamilton (WindyHollow).

I have read so many new picture books to my children (4 and 7) this year and When the Waterhole Dries Up was such a joy to read out loud with its rollicking rhythm, alliteration, and repetition. I love Max Hamilton’s illustrations (I am a bit biased!) and my children enjoyed spying the next Australian animal climbing through the window ready to join in the bath. When I saw Max’s outback scenes in the book I was instantly transported to the dusty outback, which inspired me to write my next picture book. 

Alison McLennan

Alison McLennan (@alison_mclennan) author of HOTEL FOR BEES and GROWING PAINS, recommends ROSIE THE RHINOCEROS by Jimmy Barnes, illustrated by Matt Shanks (HarperCollins Australia). 

One of my favourite Australian picture book reads this year was the delightful ROSIE THE RHINOCEROS. I don’t always love books by celebrities, but this one was genuinely fabulous. Everyone assumes Rosie is a rhinoceros but deep down she knows she’s really a unicorn. A funny and heartwarming story about acceptance, identity and celebrating your true self, no matter which package you come in.

Sandhya Parappukkaran

Sandhya Parappukkaran (https://www.instagram.com/sandhya_librarybagbooks/), author of 2021 release, THE BOY WHO TRIED TO SHRINK HIS NAME and forthcoming 2022 title AMMA’S SARI recommends THE BOY AND THE ELEPHANT by Freya Blackwood (Harper Collins Children’s Books):

My favourite picture book of the year is a wordless picture book — THE BOY AND THE ELEPHANT. Wordless picture books have a way of stirring an awakening through silent observation, which I find quite meditative. This book, through Blackwood’s masterful artwork, pulled me in from the beginning. There is a boy who is somewhat shy and awkward, and lives in an apartment block. You start to get to know him and his world on full-page illustration on the imprint page and the one before that. He has a secret friend, an elephant, in the nearby overgrown lot between apartments. He experiences serenity and joy while spending time with his friend, who is really a tree.

But one day danger arrives, and his friend’s existence is threatened. Will the boy find a way to save the trees before it’s too late? Blackwood has created an endearing narrative with light and warm illustrations that is a page turner filled with tenderness, tension, suspense, magic, hope and so much love. I love that this delicately affirming and enchanting story highlights our ability to make things happen.


Dimity Powell

Dimity Powell, author of OSWALD MESSWEATHER and forthcoming 2022 title THIS IS MY DAD, recommends COOKIE by Isabelle Duff, illustrated by Susannah Crispe (EK Books):

I am most fond of picture books that speak to both adults and children for often it is the adult who is sharing the tale with them. Stories with heart and purpose resonate with me but they must also appeal to the younger heart. COOKIE succeeds in both as it tackles an immensely important and ‘big’ subject, depression and mental wellbeing in young people, yet it does so through the beguiling voice of a charming puppy dog. Heart melting illustrations seal the deal in this touching picture book.

Lana Spasevski

Lana Spasevski (@lana.s.writes), author of the forthcoming 2022 junior fiction series, A SPRINKLE OF SADIE, recommends THE BEST CAT, THE EST CAT by Libby Hathorn, illustrated by Rosie Handley (State Library of New South Wales Publishing). 

THE BEST CAT, THE EST CAT is everything a contemporary narrative non-fiction picture book should be: whimsical, distinctive, fun and factual. The story invites young readers to follow Trim, Matthew Flinder’s famous cat, on an enchanting and adventurous mixed media tour of the State Library of NSW.  Trim shows readers all the secret spaces of the library – the biggest, the strangest and the rarest! There are hidden library objects to seek and find, a map to follow and even ghosts on the library walls. THE BEST CAT, THE EST CAT will be devoured by curious and fact-hungry readers time and time again!

Michael Speechley

Michael Speechley, Author/Illustrator of THE ALL NEW MUST HAVE ORANGE 430 and THE GIFT recommends TRAIN PARTY by Karen Blair (Puffin Books):

My favourite Aussie picture book of 2021 is a charming story about a party at a miniature railway. The book was inspired by a miniature railway that was located close to where I grew up in Perth and I always thought it was such a magical place. Karen’s delightful book has it all. Its rhyming text is fun to read out loud and its perfect rhythm and pace will take the reader on a gentle ride through the bush. The warm illustrations capture the essence of a wonderful day where families and volunteers come together to celebrate both their loved ones and their love of trains. Who doesn’t like trains and who doesn’t like parties? Train Party is a lovely picture book for the little ones, and me.

Zewlan Moor

Zewlan Moor (@byronbiblio), Highly Commended for 2021 ASA Mentorship, and author of a forthcoming title with Windy Hollow in 2023, recommends DIG! DIG! DIG! by Wenda Shurety, illustrated by Andrea Stegmeier (Storyhouse Publishing); ICEBERG by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Jess Rackyleft (Allen & Unwin); and ALL DOGS BARK by Catherine Meatheringham, illustrated by Deb Hudson (Windy Hollow);

Like Carla, I’ve been a bit cheeky nominating more than one, but what the heck. My post, my rules!

I’ve also nominated SALIH by Inda Ahmad Zahri, illustrated by Anne Ryan (Ford St Publishing) and WONDERFUL SHOES by Emma Bowd, illustrated by Tania McCartney (Windy Hollow) in another post.

A beautifully designed book about Jake’s escape from glum, gloomy Grey Street. With narrative end pages and a vertical spread, it’s perfectly paced and offers two moments of true suspense.

A masterful narrative non-fiction book about the life cycle of an Antarctic iceberg. It’s presented poetically in a way that captures the majesty of the iceberg as a habitat teeming with life.

This is the book I wanted to write, but stopped when I saw Philip Bunting had written something similar. While Bunting can’t set a foot wrong in my son’s and my eyes, this book is even better! It tackles the philosophical topic of the indeterminacy of language in a way kids will relate to. Kids will bark, “Jappe Jappe Jappe”, while lapping up the lush illustrations.

I hope you enjoyed this 2021 wrap-up of picture books that might bring some sunshine to your life.

If you’d like to support the Australian book industry, look out for these books as you buy gifts throughout the year. Keep an eye out for the published and forthcoming titles from our curators as well. Many of them are rising stars!

And remember, if you don’t see their book at your local public or school library, request a library purchase. Librarians are keen to buy books patrons want. And authors and illustrators are paid a stipend for books held in libraries as well. Win-win!


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