The best picture books for kids this Christmas

Horrible Harriet is as horrible as ever in Leigh Hobbs' latest. Picture: Supplied
Horrible Harriet is as horrible as ever in Leigh Hobbs' latest. Picture: Supplied

There's nothing so satisfying as getting a book for Christmas, and this current crop shows how much fun can be found inside the pages of a well-crafted, entertaining and joyful children's picture book.

Looking for a good giggle? Then the latest Horrible Harriet book by the inimitable Leigh Hobbs is for you. Horrible Harriet and the Terrible Tantrum (Allen & Unwin, buy it now) features the truly terrifying and over-the-top Harriet at her subversive best, as she turns the idea of being a well-behaved and winsome child on its head.

Horrible Harriet is an overbearing bossy boots who often lets her emotions get the better of her. Bored with being bad, she's decided it's time to fit in with the other children and show that she can be a good girl too.

But, in true Horrible Harriet form, her "good-girl" smile has menacing overtones, her "thoughtful gift-giving" involves man-eating plants, and "sharing lunch" with her involves a large degree of grossness. But you can't say she isn't trying.

In an attempt to turn over a new leaf, Harriet keeps her Terrible Tantrum locked safely in a cage in the roof, where she reads it bedtime stories and keeps it well fed. But the Terrible Tantrum has a mind of its own. It's rude and cheeky and scary, and prone to misbehave.

And one day it escapes and heads straight to Harriet's classroom.

Like Harriet, the Terrible Tantrum tries hard to fit in. And, to Harriet's chagrin, he gets all the attention that she was hoping for. Obviously there is only one way to deal with the situation. Harriet has a terrifically terrible tantrum of her own. Luckily, her short-sighted teacher is so impressed by her acrobatic skills as she wrestles the terrible monster she has created, he presents her with the "Good Girl of the Week Badge". Who'd have thought!

Brimming with Hobbs' usual delightful whimsy, colourfully over-the-top characters and magnificent monsters, this is a wonderful way to celebrate twenty years since Horrible Harriet escaped from Hobb's overactive imagination and ran rampant across the page. Happy Birthday, Harriet!

While actual travel is still somewhat limited, you can always travel the world through books. And that is just what the impossibly cute Plume does in Plume World Explorer (Hardie Grant Explore, buy it now) by super-talented local author, illustrator and book designer Tania McCartney.

Plume is a penguin who stands out from the crowd. And it's not just because of the small yellow feather that sprouts from his head. Unlike the other penguins in Antarctica, who are content with their black-and-white world, Plume embraces difference and hankers after colour and excitement.

Thanks to Ava and her Albatross Express, Plume finally gets to experience the world that he has read about in the books in his impressively stocked "Biblioteca". Ava takes the enthusiastic world explorer to New Zealand, Australia, China, France, England, Canada, America, Peru and South Africa.

In each exotic country, Plume makes new friends, experiences firsthand the unique sights and sounds of the places he visits, and gets to sample their delicious food.

When this erudite and endearing little penguin returns home, he's keen to share his experiences with the other penguins. And, luckily for us, there is the promise of more adventures to come for this intrepid adventurer.

From the glorious front cover, featuring Plume in a tangerine jumper balancing the world on his flipper, to the colourful pages inside brimming with entrancing details, this book is a celebration of difference, the delights of travel and the rewards of embracing the world and all it has to offer. McCartney's entrancing images and fabulous artwork make this a perfect book to share, savour and delight in.

There is also much joy to be had in Jacinta Froud and Gabriella Petruso's delightfully over- the-top Jingle Belly (Larrikin House, buy it now). It's hard to go past the front cover, with its gold letters, Christmas decorations and incredibly enthusiastic puppy face.

And the story inside does not disappoint, although there is a distinctly scatological ending.

Eddie the wonderdog is renowned for getting into trouble. He eats socks, rolls in paint, drinks the water from the loo, chases balls and eats anything he can get his teeth into. Which is where he comes undone when he runs off with the angel from the top of the Christmas tree.

Mayhem ensues, and Eddie returns from a riotous run around the block looking like the Christmas tree he has just destroyed. He's finally captured and taken to the vet to see if she can cure his "jingle belly". Not surprisingly, he's not the only pet who has had a Christmas catastrophe!

The vet comes up with the obvious answer for de-belling poor Eddie - letting nature take its course. Which it inevitably does, and Eddie's jingle belly is no more. This entertaining romp of a book will definitely get kids in the Christmas spirit, while reminding parents of the dangers of letting pets eat Christmas decorations.

Froud's rollicking rhyming text carries the story along at a great pace, as she introduces Eddie and details the mayhem he creates on Christmas Eve, plus the rather unpleasant present he deposits under the Christmas tree. Peruso's illustrations are equally entertaining, full of colour and movement.

Her cartoon style perfectly captures the over-enthusiastic pooch and his interactions with friends, family and unsuspecting neighbours. Eddie's enthusiasm is infectious and this is the perfect book to giggle over on Christmas Eve.

Like all good Christmas stories, Fire Truck Santa (Albert Street Books, buy it now) by Nik McPickle and Nathaniel Eckstrom contains humour, joy and pathos, as well as lots of Christmas cookies. It's a celebration of the Aussie tradition of Santa delivering presents to kids in the fire truck belonging to the local fire brigade.

Based on Clement Clark Moore's classic poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas', McPickle's text captures the excitement of a visit from Santa in his old fire truck, which unfortunately keeps breaking down.

Luckily for Santa, the kids are there to help patch up the truck - and ply him with cookies. But in the end, the clapped-out old truck has had enough.

Luckily, as happens during every bushfire season in Australia, intrepid volunteers are there to lend a hand - neighbours, friends, firefighters, park rangers, teachers and nurses - and they come together to make sure that Santa has a shiny new fire truck so he can head off to other places in his sleigh, content in the knowledge that a shiny new fire truck will be waiting for him.

The illustrations are a joyous celebration of Christmas, full of enthusiastic kids, Aussie bush scenes and eye-catching details, like the bandaids and rope holding the old fire truck together, the tinsel on the radiator and the little girl who can't help but peak when Santa asks them all to close their eyes.

And watch out for guest appearances by an entertaining band of chooks and dogs.

This is a great way to celebrate not only a distinctly Australian Christmas tradition but also the wonderful volunteers who help ensure we are all safe and sound at this time of year and we all get to have what's looking to be a merry Christmas!

  • Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder is a Canberra author and reviewer whose latest picture book is Australia's Wild Weird Wonderful Weather, illustrated by Tania McCartney.
  • This review may receive a commission for any sales made from the links in this article. Although we may receive a commission for this, all our opinion and suggestions are unbiased.
This story Christmas Capers for the kids first appeared on The Canberra Times.