Because Australia and New Zealand are islands, far and isolated from other land masses, many of their animals aren’t found anywhere else on Earth. They have evolved and adapted well to the ecosystems found here: the large desert, forests, grasslands, and mountains. Here are some wonderful picture books and video clips that highlight the very unique animals of Australia and New Zealand. There are silly stories with animals as their main character, and others are based on true adventures had by animals in this part of the world. All are delightful and colorful, and will compliment and add a global dimension to lessons in science and social studies. The incredible clips offer a live view of animals in their natural habitat.
Before reading the books, familiarize yourself and your kiddos with some of the amazing animals found in Australia. For example, most of the 140 species of Australian marsupials are not found in anywhere else in the world! Marsupials are mammals whose young are born underdeveloped; they continue to develop by independently crawling into their mother’s pouch to suckle (though a few marsupials have no pouch).
I did a short unit at home about Australia with my kids when they were in preschool, and 6 months later was impressed when my son remembered the marsupials. My son walked in to see my sister-in-law nursing her newborn. He grabbed his toy, and announced “Oh, she’s looking for milk like the kangaroo, right?” He was referring to this amazing clip of a brand-new baby joey from the BBC’s Life of Mammals. I hope by exploring more Australian and New Zealand animals, that your kids can make some memorable connections as well:).
Koalas are actually not bears, but marsupials! They live in Australia and eat eucalyptus leaves (gum leaves)- which are low in nutrition, high in fiber, and high in water (so koalas don’t need to drink). They are in danger because the forests- their home and food source- are shrinking.
The first story is actually based on the real-life story of “Cinders,” a koala who has survived a couple of bushfires, and walked miles to find a new home and feeding ground when her was destroyed. Finding Home by Sandra Markle tells of a mother koala who climbs and crawls to safety when her trees are burned in bushfire:
The air smells of eucalyptus leaves and smoke…
Fire sweeps through the forest– crackling, snapping, roaring. Waves of flames roll over brush, crawl up tree trunks, and leap through the air, eating every leaf they touch. Higher still– as high as the huddled koalas– swirls the mud-black smoke.
The koalas eventually make it to a suburb where they encounter a dog, a girl, and eventually a town of curious people with flashlights. My kids were captured by the story and illustrations, and finally exhaled as the koalas make it to their new home. The author, Sandra Markle, currently lives in Amberley, New Zealand, and is one of my favorite children’s author of exceptional science-themed books.
We also enjoyed The Life Cycle of a Koala book by Bobbie Kalman. The photographs are mixed in with clear illustrations, and explain the life cycle in a way that most kids in elementary school will understand. When we were looking at the page with the life cycle image in a circle, my little ones exclaimed: “Hey, frogs have a life cycle too! And butterflies!” (two ubiquitous topics in preschools). If you are interested to learn about the cuddly koala’s development, there is a great description and image at the Australian Koala Foundation. On their web site, you will also find lots of downloadable photos and graphics, teaching materials, and information on where to see koalas in Australia.
Wombats are another marsupial found only in Australia. They are nocturnal, spending the days sleeping in their underground burrows and the nights eating grasses and roots. The mother cares for her young for a few months, protecting him from dingos and other predators, nursing him in her pouch, and later digging up food for him. The Australian web site Wombania has everything you would every like to know about wombats, from a map of distribution, to a wombat merchandise. Go underground into a wombat’s tunnel in this video from BBC Wildlife.
If you’ve never heard of wombats, Caroline Arnold’s “A Wombat’s World” is the perfect introduction. Factual and informational, yet written in a story form for children, the pages have simple cut paper illustrations that teach us about the habitat, life cycle, and food of wombats. After reading this, my animal-loving daughter exclaimed “I never knew I loved wombats!”
The next story is a cute, fictional account of a little wombat who discovers that his simple skills of thinking and digging are more valuable than he had thought. In Wombat Goes Walkabout, by Michael Morpurgo, wombat meets many indigenous Australian animals who are proud of their unique talents: kookaburra can fly, wallaby can jump, possum hangs upside down, emu runs, etc. None are impressed by wombats digging until his burrow saves them from a bush fire. It’s a great book for little kids because of its message, and its repetitive text.
Possums are yet another marsupial, wide-spread in Australia. They are nocturnal plant-eaters that make their nests in hollowed out trees. OzAnimals has many pictures and descriptions of the different types of possums (and other animals). Before looking at Australian animals, I hadn’t known that possums were so prevalent.
I must admit, when we discovered possums in our attic last year I didn’t think they were as cute as the creatures that star in the silly story “Possum Magic.”
Beloved Australian author Mem Fox teams up with illustrator Julie Vivas to take readers on a culinary tour of Australian cities with a couple of possums. When Grandma Poss(um) makes her grandson Hush invisible, she must try to remember the magical food to make him be seen again.
“They ate Anzac biscuits in Adelaide,
mornay and Minties in Melbourne,
steak and salad in Sydney,
and pumpkin scones in Brisbane.”
The story has a happy ending when they finally discover the cure: “a Vegemite sandwich, a piece of pavlova, and half a lamington.”
Kangaroos and wallabies are both front-pouched marsupials with strong hind legs and large hind feet that are excellent jumpers. Wallabies are smaller, have brighter colored fur, and eat leaves while kangaroos are larger, have muted colored fur, and prefer grass. Here is a short video from BBC Wildlife about kangaroos.
Kangaroo Island: A Story of an Australian Mallee Forest by Deirdre Langeland tells the story of a young kangaroo who is separated from his mother during a thunderstorm. In this book we are not only treated to kangaroos, but also to the sea lions, penguins, cockatoos and possums that share this ecological paradise off the coast of Adelaide, South Australia.
The next book is more playful: Bobbie Dazzler, by Margaret Wild, tells the story of an energetic young wallaby who can jump, stand on her head, bounce, and skip- but cannot do the splits. After practicing and with much encouragement from her friends (possum, koala, and wombat), she is finally able to reach her goal.
The final books encompass a variety of Australian animals. For the older kids, check out Christopher Cheng’s non-fiction book 30 Amazing Australian Animals. With facts and figures, this offers an in-depth look at the many Australian animals that are endemic to the island and not found anywhere else on Earth.
For smaller kids, sing your way through “Over in Australia” by Marianne Berkes.
The paper-cut illustration and repetitive lyrics show parent animals and their young doing a variety of typical actions. My kids love these books that are sung to the “Over in the Meadow” tune (see also Over in the Arctic, Over in the Jungle, Over in the Ocean, etc by the same author). I enjoyed reading this book after we had studied Australian animals, so my children could shout out their names as I turned the pages- they love being the “experts!”