My Dad is a Grizzly Bear by Swapna Haddow and Dapo Adeola

There are plenty of picture books around about dads, but none quite like My Dad is a Grizzly Bear. This is a celebration of a loving family, wrapped up in an entertaining story that will have both kids and adults chuckling.

The boy in the story tries to convince us that his dad is a grizzly bear. His dad has the fuzziest fur, gives sloppy kisses and growls while he chases. He loves honey so much that he eats every drop in the house, he naps all the time and he’s grumpy and grumbly when he wakes up. He might be all of these things but there is no one better at giving the biggest, warmest bear hugs.

My Dad is a Grizzly Bear is an absolute joy to read and it makes me smile every time I look at it. Swapna and Dapo are a dream team, who have created a picture book that is a pleasure for the ears and the eyes. It is one of those stories that works on different levels. Kids and adults will each enjoy different aspects of it, with adults appreciating the familiar aspects of family life.

Swapna’s story flows really well and is full of lots of wonderful language. There is a tone of annoyance at some of the things the boy’s dad does, but he also points out the amazing things that his dad can do, like running fast to catch the bus or catching fish in his teeth. Dapo’s illustrations are sublime and they’re the perfect match for Swapna’s story. They’re so bright and full of fun. Dapo really capture’s both how much the boy is annoyed by his dad and how much he adores him. He has perfectly captured the love that the family has for each other. I love the personality that Dapo has given the dad (especially the cool clothes that he wears) and the way that he makes the dad look like a grizzly bear, while also keeping his dad-ness. My favourite part of the story is when the dad wanders off into the woods, with his torch and his roll of toilet paper, ‘perhaps he was looking for his friends.’

This is a beautifully designed picture book too. It’s hardcover, with a bright cover that captures the joy, and it has the best endpapers that I’ve seen for a while (pink with big pineapples, just like the dad’s swim shorts on the front cover).

My Dad is a Grizzly Bear is a picture book that will be enjoyed again and again. I’ve read it multiple times with my family and I know it will be a winner with many of the classes that I’ll read it to at my school.

Ballet Bunnies by Swapna Reddy and Binny Talib

What do you get when you combine one little beginner ballerina and bunnies in tutus? You get the most adorable chapter book series for young readers ever! Swapna Haddow (author of the Dave Pigeon series writing as Swapna Reddy) and Binny Talib have joined forces to give readers a series full of friendship, mischief and tutus.

The first three books in the series have been released together, which is fantastic as young readers can really fall in love with Millie and her bunny friends. In The New Class we meet Millie, who has dreamed of going to Miss Luisa’s School of Dance for months. On her sixth birthday her Mum surprises her with lessons and she’s so excited to go. Unfortunately things don’t start smoothly. Perfect Amber is mean to Millie and she just can’t get the moves right. When she most needs a friend she discovers the Ballet Bunnies – Dolly, Fifi, Pod and Trixie. With the help of the Ballet Bunnies and her new friend Samira, Millie starts to improve her ballet skills and have fun while doing it.

In the second book, Let’s Dance, Millie is preparing to perform for the first time in her ballet school’s gala show. While Millie is excited at first to perform, once she sees the stage she becomes very nervous and worried. Luckily Millie has her Ballet Bunnies to give her some tips and help her prepare.

In the third book, Millie’s Birthday, Millie is getting ready for her birthday. All her friends and family are going to be there but Millie gets a funny feeling in her tummy when she thinks about all those people. The bunnies decide to sneak home in Millie’s bag so that they can be there for Millie’s party. They will have a lot of fun together, but they’ll have to keep hidden from Millie’s mum and the party guests.

I love absolutely everything about The Ballet Bunnies series! From the moment young readers see these books glittering on the shelf they are going to be smitten with the Ballet Bunnies. I read all three books to my 5 year old daughter and we giggled our way through each book. As soon as she saw the books she squealed with excitement and we had to read them one after another over three nights. She couldn’t pick a favourite bunny but I love Trixie because she keeps falling asleep. We both love Millie though and we had some good discussions about what happened to her in the stories.

The covers are loaded with glitter and Binny’s illustrations make your heart melt. The bunnies are absolutely adorable (I totally wanted to cuddle them all) but they all have a different personality. There are illustrations on almost every page.

I really love that each of the stories is quite different and doesn’t feel formulaic. So often with series for younger readers the stories can feel the same in each book. In each Ballet Bunnies book Millie is dealing with different emotions, whether it is sadness and frustration about not knowing the ballet moves, nervousness and worry about performing, or feeling anxious at her party. I love the way that Swapna includes strategies to help Millie cope with her emotions. These are all situations that kids find themselves in so kids will be able to relate easily to Millie and these strategies will maybe even help them in a similar situation.

If you have a young reader in your life, especially a girl, you must get them The Ballet Bunnies series. They are perfect for newly independent readers to read themselves or to read aloud to 5-7 year olds. There are more books to come in the series next year and my daughter and I can’t wait!

Illustrated fiction for newly independent readers

Illustrated fiction is perfect for newly independent readers because there are still pictures that help to bring the characters alive and show what is happening in the story. There are so many wonderful illustrated stories out there that are perfect for young readers to read themselves or to read aloud. Friendship, magic and animals are all common themes for books for this age group (roughly ages 5-7).

The books below are all ones that I have read for my own enjoyment or read aloud to my 5 year old daughter so they come highly recommended.

From the bright, sparkly cover to the story of a magical colouring book transporting Maya to another world, The Magical Kingdom of Birds series (written by Anne Booth and illustrated by Rosie Butcher) is sure to be a winner with young readers. It’s perfect for fans of Zanna Davidson’s Fairy Ponies series or readers who have loved the Rainbow Magic books and want something meatier to read.

Maya receives a magic colouring book that once belonged to her mother and it transports her to the Magical Kingdom of the Birds. Here she meets a fairy named Willow and a Magpie named Patch, who tell her she is destined to save the kingdom. This first book in the series focuses on the hummingbirds and a spell that has been placed on them. It is up to Maya, Willow and Patch to find an antidote and stop the villainous Lord Astor.

One of the things I loved about this book is the way that the author adds extra special details at the end of the story. There is a Bird Fact File with lots of hummingbird facts, and instructions for making a bird feeder and bird biscuits.

The Pearl the Unicorn series by Sally Odgers and illustrated by Adele K Thomas is a series that I will gladly read over and over again. They are super fun stories with perfectly matched illustrations. I’ve read all the books in the series so far with my daughter and they’re all great. Essentially, Pearl is a unicorn whose magic always goes wrong. A ‘toss, toss, wiggle, flick’ can end with hilarious results like yogurt falling from the sky. Pearl spends the days with her friends Tweet the fire bird and Olive the troll, getting up to all sorts of adventures. The nasty gobble-uns are never far away but Pearl’s misfiring magic saves the day.

What isn’t to like about the Kitty series by Paula Harrison and illustrated by Jenny Lovlie? It’s about a girl called Kitty who turns into a cat superhero at night, with cat superpowers like super hearing. Kitty and her feline friends, Pumpkin and Pixie, go on daring missions at night, like saving a secret Sky Garden from being ruined by bad cats. This is the perfect series for kids who have loved watching PJ Masks and are interested in superheroes. Jenny Lovlie’s illustrations are super cute, especially Kitty’s feline friends.

The Evie and Pog series by Tania McCartney has been one of my favourites to read aloud with my daughter. They’re funny and silly with characters that kids will want to keep coming back to.

Evie is six years old. She likes reading and baking and rolling on the daisy-spot grass. Pog is a pug. He is two and likes to drink tea and read the newspaper.

There are three books in the series so far – Party Perfect, Take Off and Puppy Playtime. Each book has three stories, that take about ten minutes to read aloud, making them perfect for bedtime. Pog reminds me of Gromit (from Wallace and Gromit) because he doesn’t talk but has very human-like qualities, like reading the newspaper or entering an art competition.

I’m a huge fan of the Miniwings series by Sally Sutton and illustrated by Kirsten Richards. Every single book in the series is totally fabo, from the silly antics of the Clara, Sophia and the Miniwings to Kirsten Richards hilarious illustrations. The Miniwings are small horse toys that come alive when adults aren’t around. They are always getting sisters Clara and Sophia in to trouble and getting up to lots of mischief, including destroying a delicious high-tea that the sisters get invited to.

The latest book in the series, Moonlight the Unicorn’s High Tea Hiccup is a finalist in the junior fiction category of 2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It’s one of the best junior fiction series for young readers in New Zealand so it’s great to see it get that recognition.

Donovan Bixley’s Flying Furballs series is another brilliant junior fiction series from NZ that has just come to an end with the ninth book in the series. Flying Furballs is pussycats in planes in Paris. Donovan reimagines the First World War, with the CATS as the good guys and the DOGZ as the bad guys. There are daring missions, dramatic rescues, and action and laughs galore. They are such fun books to read and you can tell that Donovan had a lot of fun creating them. The Flying Furballs series is sure to hook young readers who are just starting on their reading journey.

Stripes Publishing

In my opinion Stripes Publishing are publishing the best illustrated fiction for newly independent readers. Their authors are some of the best children’s authors around, their illustrators are superb and they are gorgeous books to hold and enjoy. Here are some of the best from Stripes.

I love this adorable odd couple. Jasper is a cat who is neat and tidy and a snappy dresser and Scruff is a scruffy dog who’s a little messy. They’re complete opposites but the best of friends.

In the first book, Jasper is desperate to join the Sophisticats and he does all he can to gain their favour. They finally accept his dinner invitation when Scruff comes in to his life and throws it in to disarray. In The Treasure Hunt (the second book) they open a bookshop together and find a treasure map in one of the books which leads them on a treasure hunt.

Both of the stories in the series are perfect for reading aloud or for newly independent readers to read themselves. There are illustrations on every page that make the story come alive. Nicola Colton writes and illustrates the stories and she really knows her audience. I hope to read more adventures of Jasper and Scruff.

Midge & Mo by Lara Williamson and illustrated by Becky Cameron is the perfect book about friendship for newly independent readers. Midge is starting at a new school. His parents have split up so he has moved. He misses his old school and his friends. A girl in his new class, Mo, becomes his buddy and tries everything she can think of to cheer him up and become his friend, but it takes a special present to bring Midge out of his shell.

The story is engaging and attractive, with sparse text and colour illustrations on every page. As well as being perfect for newly independent readers to read themselves Midge and Mo would make a great read aloud for 6-8 year olds.

I picked up Little Rabbit’s Big Surprise by Swapna Haddow and illustrated by Alison Friend from the library to read to my daughter (who was 4 at the time). She loved this adorable story so much that we read it all in one go and read it 3 more times in the next few days. That, for me, is the sign of a great book! I’ve recommended it to lots of kids since and they’ve all enjoyed it.

Little Rabbit’s Big Surprise tells the story of a little rabbit who joins her grandfather on an outing one day and ends up helping out the animals that they meet. Alison Friend’s illustrations to Swapna Haddow’s story make this a super cute read. Like all of the Stripes junior fiction with colour illustrations there are no chapters so the story reads like a picture book in a chapter book format.

A Sea of Stories by Sylvia Bishop and illustrated by Paddy Donnelly is a story about Roo and her grandfather. Roo loves exploring the cove by her grandfather’s house but when he can’t get down the steep path any more Roo asks him about the treasures in his house. Each treasure has a story attached to it and through these stories Roo learns more about her grandfather. This is a lovely story about family and the stories our elders have to tell.

I hope you’ve found some new books to read or share in this post. If you’ve got favourite books for young readers I’d love to hear about them.