Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Favourite Picture Books by Emma Allen

It’s interesting – when you are first getting to know someone they often ask, “What are your favourite books?”

published by Scholastic, 2013

When you learn about a person’s favourite books, it can reveal things about them: how they think, what they like, the problems they face, how they see the world, what they like about the world and what they don’t.  So when people ask me what my favourite books were as a child, I am excited to think on the topic because I get to learn about my childhood self: what I was like and what made me feel.

When I was growing up, I loved many books. Here are four of my favourites:

Why are these my favourite picture books from childhood?

On the surface, these stories look so different from one another: a sly but hopeless fox chases a hen who is unaware of the danger she is in; a duck is suddenly separated from his family on the Yangtzee River; a child rages in an imaginary land of wild things; a boy tries to come to terms with the death of his cat.

However, I wonder if I was drawn to these books because they have something in common.

They all flirt with the dark side of life: with a sense of danger; with a sense of fear; with a sense of rage; with an awareness of loss. In all of these books, there is some kind of dreadfulness or darkness. I cannot help but wonder sometimes if the ‘MAD mad’ child in my own story, The Terrible Suitcase is drawn somehow from these favourite books of mine.

Is it okay to flirt with the dark side?

In her recent post on middle school fiction, Clare Havens raises the question, ‘How Scary is too Scary?’   I ask a similar question of picture books: just how unpleasant, how terrible, how terrifying, how disappointing, how melancholic can a picture book be?

I always loved reading about Rosie the hen. It was so exciting to see the fox when Rosie didn’t!   It was always fun to read because it was scary.  And poor Ping.  Lost on the Yangtzee River. I knew he wouldn’t get eaten for dinner, yet every time I worried… and, every time, I enjoyed the worry.

In Where the Wild Things Are, the scary journey is both real (emotionally) and imagined (the land where the wild things live).  Even though we know that Max is making up the world of the wild things, it’s exciting; we want to know, ‘Will Max be okay?’

The young child in Judith Viorst’s The Tenth Good Thing About Barney is facing life without his beloved cat, Barney. The child can not eat. He can not watch television. He is utterly miserable. Yet, I loved to read this story - not because it was miserable - but because it made me feel.  I laughed and I cried.  Just like the child in the book, I had questions about loss and life and how things change.

Looking back, I think the pleasure I gained from these picture books was an appreciation of complexity and a sense of comfort.

A final thought:

In The Spying Heart, Katherine Paterson describes how in Japanese the word ‘idea’ is made up of two characters. One character means sound. The other character means heart.  She says: ‘Isn’t that a wonderful picture? There is something lying deep within you that sets off an alarm, rings, sounds, waking up your heart’.

published by Puffin Books, 1989

Literature has the capacity to ring with truth.  Stories can safely wake up our hearts. You are never too young to experience that.

About the Author

Emma worked and trained as a paediatric speech-language therapist (BAppSc Speech Pathology) after studying at the University of Sydney. During this time, Emma was always fascinated to observe the children play and invent imaginary scenarios.   Memories of these children in their playground 'worlds' inform her writing.

A lifelong love of literature and the arts led Emma to return to university where she completed a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) with a double major in English Literature and Film Studies (Australian National University, 2006). During this time Emma was increasingly drawn towards ideas that combined the visual with the literary. In seeking to give expression to these ideas Emma enrolled in a Masters of Creative Writing at the University of Canberra. She graduated with her Masters in 2012.

The Terrible Suitcase is Emma’s first picture book.  Illustrated by Freya Blackwood, The Terrible Suitcase was awarded Book of the Year (Early Childhood, 2013) by the Children’s Book Council of Australia.  Emma was also a shortlisted author for the Western Australia Premier’s Literary Awards (2013).


  1. I also loved Where the Wild things are; another dark picture book that i enjoyed, was home and away by John Marsden

    1. Thank you for your comment. I haven't read Home and Away but John Marsden is one of my favourite writers so I will look for it.

      Another favourite bedtime story in our house was The Lorax by Dr Seuss. The pages of our book are so soft, they've been turned so many times. A dark theme of environmental damage but told with the light touch of rhyming verse. Another classic.

  2. Thank you Emma. There are many things I like about your post but I especially want to mention two - your point about "enjoying" the worry (about whether Ping would be eaten even though you knew he'd be just fine) and your lovely final comment - that "Literature has the capacity to ring with truth. Stories can safely wake up our hearts. You are never too young to experience that."

    Worrying about characters means we care about them. And what better way to worry than through the magic of a picture book?

    I just love your final paragraph - beautifully put!