Mem Fox is a children’s services legend. She is a passionate early literacy educator and advocate whose books can be found on library shelves around the world. Fox was born and currently resides in Australia, but spent much of her childhood in Africa. Her debut picture book, Possum Magic, is the best selling picture book in Australian history, and remains in print 30+ years after its release.
Australian geography, fauna and culture play important roles in many of Fox’s picture books (particularly in Possum Magic, in which Australian food is imbued with magical powers), but Hello Baby was inspired by Fox’s childhood in Africa. Fox lived in different parts of the continent, including Zimbabwe and Rwanda, for most of her childhood, having left Australia with her missionary parents when she was six months old.
In Hello Baby, simple, rhyming text follows a little baby as it explores its African surroundings, encountering all sorts of different animals along the way, like a monkey, an eagle and a warthog. Mem Fox understands that when it comes to picture books for the youngest readers, less really can be more. She doesn’t overload her book with text, instead placing a few carefully chosen words on each page, and using rhythm and rhyme to help support early literacy. As anyone who has ever tried to read a picture book with a wiggly toddler will tell you, a picture book that maximizes efficiency and helps you pack in as much early literacy as possible in a small amount of time can be worth its weight in gold.
Animals have long been a staple of children’s picture books, which is fitting given how curious many children are about the natural world. Most picture books, though, typically focus either on domesticated animals, like cows and sheep, or familiar European/North American creatures, like deer, bears, foxes or raccoons. What sets Hello Baby apart is its animal characters – young children are introduced to creatures they might not see in other picture books, like geckos, warthogs, leopards and crocodiles. Like Rachel Isadora’s Old Mikamba Had a Farm, Hello Baby uses a familiar format to introduce readers to animals that are as familiar to children in other parts of the world as foxes and bears can be to children in North America.
Now, Steven Jenkins isn’t Australian, but I adore his unique, visually-striking illustrations so much that I just have to mention them. Jenkins is a prolific author/illustrator who has created over thirty books for children, and is a master of collage, creating torn-and-cut paper images that inspire and delight. He’s a Caldecott Honor-winner whose nonfiction titles are always worth taking a look at, so it’s exciting to see his visual style brought to a picture book.
And for all you hopeful authors out there, take heart – Mem Fox submitted her manuscript for Possum Magic to nine publishers and received nine rejections before finally getting accepted by the tenth publisher, who then asked that she essentially rewrite most of the book. That story would go on to become the most successful picture book in Australian history. So, the road to success does not always run smooth!
HOLD THE PRESSES – I’m updating this post because I just discovered a video of Mem Fox reading from Hello Baby! Check it out here.