Picture books of the day: Owls Are Good at Keeping Secrets and H Is for Haiku are inventive alphabet books

H Is for Haiku: A Treasury of Haiku from A to Z, illustrated by Sawsan Chalabi, written by Sydell Rosenberg, published by Penny Candy Books, ISBN:  978-0998799971. ARC reviewed. (2018)

Owls Are Good at Keeping Secrets: An Unusual Alphabet, illustrated by Jacob Grant, written by Sara O’Leary, published by Random House, ISBN: 978-1524713317. (2018)

 

These two books have fun shaking up the world of alphabet books with clever wordplay and dynamic illustrations. Both tickle the funny bone and delight with their whimsical observations.

H Is for Haiku begins with an introductory note from poet Sydell Rosenberg’s daughter Amy Losak that tells how her late mother wrote these haiku to celebrate the “small moments” in life that are still special even if they otherwise go unnoticed. Many haiku writers, Losak claims, do not always adhere to the 5/7/5 syllable count, but instead focus on little incidents. Rosenberg’s bite-sized gems have a playful quality to them as they hop with joy through the alphabet. And colorful bold fonts accentuate this bouncy playfulness. Take the page that reads “Car buried in snow-/On back seat, a wide-eyed doll/Ready for a jaunt.” The “C” is in an eye-catching red, the rest of the first line in orange, the next line is black, and the final line back to red. Then the next haiku reads “Drops of rain clanking/Into an old water can/Left outside to rust.” Each bubble-like word appears in a black drop of rain; the D is orange, the rest of the letters in the first line white, the next line the letters are aqua blue, and then we return to orange in the third line. Illustrator Sawsan Chalabi creates marvelous colorful art that accompanies each work with imagery swirling, dancing across the page, making each small moment truly special indeed. Wonderful.

Wow, Owls Are Good at Keeping Secrets is a blast. Coming out late in the year 2018, in December, this one almost sneaked past me. I see a lot of picture books starring animals in any given season. Owls beats to the sound of its own drummer with author Sara O’Leary coming up with surprising, snappy, unexpected observations about a wide array of critters. She writes, for example, that “Narwhals can be perfectly happy all alone” and that “Raccoons are always the first to arrive for a party.” Did you know that dragons cry at happy endings and that toads are terrific at tongue-twisters? Well, they are according to O’Leary. Illustrator Jacob Grant takes each of these sometimes goofy, sometimes sweet ideas and runs with them. His warmly comical images enchant and delight. Look at the dancing jellyfish or those wolves refusing to smile for the camera. My favorite might be “Unicorns believe in themselves.” Grant renders a lovely drawing of a little unicorn standing on a green ladder to put the final touches on a giant sand unicorn on the beach. What a delight. An added plus in an alphabet book: each page clearly puts the upper case and lower case versions of each letter. A big hooray for this fantastic book!

 

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My favorite 20 novels, graphic novels, and longer non-fiction of 2018 (alphabetical by title)

I usually stick to picture book reviews on this blog. And recently I posted my favorite 30 picture books of 2018. But I also read a lot of great looooooonger books in 2018. Novels. Graphic novels. Works on non-fiction. Longer picture books that feel like novellas. So I thought I would give a special shout out to 20 I absolutely loved. So behold some short capsules (a few sentences each) about long books, capsules written with enthusiasm and a “you gotta read this” vibe, presented alphabetically by title.

 

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, written by M.T. Anderson, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763698225.

What is the truth? This fantastical, intriguingly idiosyncratic tale about a rather worldweary elfin historian catapulted into enemy territory (land of the goblins) to deliver a peace offering works as, among many other things, a fiercely funny fantasy tale and as a rather sobering anti-war allegory. Readers soon discover that M.T. Anderson’s brilliantly composed words (seen from one POV) are at odds with Eugene Yelchin’s strikingly grotesque illustrations (seen from another). What’s real? What’s propaganda? This epic cooks, soaring from one witty chapter to the next.

Be Prepared, illustrated and written by Vera Brosgol, published by First Second, ISBN: 978-1626724457.

I love 2017 Caldecott honoree Vera Brosgol’s way of drawing facial expressions and body language. So fluid, so funny. This wickedly funny graphic autobiographical novel introduces middle grade readers to a girl who experiences one horrible stay at a U.S.-based Russian summer camp. Offering  captivating humor of discomfiture, Brosgol excels at making middle grade angst amusing.

The Button War, written by Avi, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763690533.

A bunch of boys play an increasingly dangerous game of collecting buttons from soldiers’ outfits in this taut World War I novel set in a small Russian-occupied Polish village. At the height of his storytelling powers, Avi doesn’t waste a single word here. Advertised as a middle school book (and kids who like historical fiction will find a lot to engage them), but adult fans of books like Lord of the Flies, Catch-22, or Slaughterhouse Five might also appreciate Avi’s “war is not only hell but insane” message.

Dear Sister, illustrated by Joe Bluhm, written by Alison McGhee, published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, ISBN: 978-1481451420.

Siblings will relate to this heavily illustrated and moving story that spans seven years in the life of a boy (11 at the start) who finds his younger sister incredibly annoying. He writes letter after letter to her, complaining about her antics, but then grows fond of her as the years pass. McGhee’s emotionally direct prose crackles, and Bluhm’s charming illustrations tickle the funny bone. Their work seems effortless, and the book never feels saccharine.

Front Desk, written by Kelly Yang, published by Arthur A. Levine, 978-1338157796.

This absorbing semiautobiographical middle novel stars a resourceful girl named Mia whose hard-working Chinese immigrant parents end up running a motel run by an unscrupulous owner who exploits them. This instantly likable protagonist hooks the reader with her dreams of being a writer, and also her commendable sense of fairness and social justice. Yang writes from the heart (without being overly syrupy) and tells a story about a kid being in a situation I have never encountered in any children’s book. Funny, fascinating, endearing.

 

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science, written by Joyce Sidman, published by HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0544717138.

Wow, just look at this book’s striking design. Joyce Sidman’s rich, poetic prose sings with joy and wonder as she delivers this beautifully researched account of 17th century German scientist Maria Merian who studied insects and flowers. Packed with full-color illustrations (many from the time), this eye-catching wonder helps the reader (child and adult) understand what an impact this groundbreaking woman made. I learned a lot from this book. It’s clear, concise, and at times breathtaking.

The Jamie Drake Equation, written by Christopher Edge, published by Delacorte, ISBN: 978-1524713614.

The best science fiction convinces you that a situation is truly happening, even when the situation is completely outlandish. Christopher Edge has the reader urgently flipping pages and gasping for air as an astronaut’s son fears for his father’s life after a mishap. Meanwhile, the boy starts receiving strange signals on his phone. Edge takes us on a cosmic time-warping dimension-hopping journey, and does so with remarkable wit and heart.

The Journey of Little Charlie, written by Christopher Paul Curtis, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-0545156660.

Yet enough powerful book from Newbery/Coretta Scott King Author winner Christopher Paul Curtis, who gives the reader a down and out kid named Charlie squirming under the thumb of the year’s most horrifying villain. Set in the 19th century, Curtis’ historical novel breathlessly balances poignant drama with outright horror as Charlie heads to Canada with the brute to capture former slaves now living free. Readers might find the heavy dialect imposing at first, but once Curtis’ raw story grabs them they will be hooked.

Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish, written by Pablo Cartaya, published by Viking, ISBN: 978-1101997260.

2018 had many great books about family and connection, and Marcus Vega easily deserves to be considered one of the year’s best. This story about the rather imposing (due to height and size) Marcus starts off with a bang when Marcus gets into some trouble. Then when he travels to Puerto Rico (Cartaya in an author’s note says he wrote this before the devastating hurricane) to spend time with his family, the book becomes quiet and reflective with Marcus finding himself as person and discovering his place in the world. A gem of a coming of age story.

Marley Dias Gets It Done (And So Can You), written by Marley Dias, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-1338136890.

2018 had a lot of inspirational books informing kids how they can be activists, and Marley Dias, she of the supercool and successful #1000blackgirlbooks campaign, has written a truly informative one. This vibrant book works as a sound advice book about fighting for causes you believe in, covering a lot of topics in a concise, kid-friendly manner. She also has great advice for the publishing industry: books starring children of color should have their faces featured prominently on the books’ covers. She’s awesome; so is her book.

Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, written by Alice Faye Duncan, published by Calkins Creek, ISBN: 978-1629797182.

This riveting fictionalized picture book probably should have been on my picture book list, but for some reason it seems more at home on this list of longer works. It feels like a rich, rewarding novella. Alice Faye Duncan does a beautiful job placing a 9-year-old girl named Lorraine Jackson at the chaotic center of the 1968 sanitation worker’s strike and discussing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s role in fighting for the workers’ rights. Meanwhile, the great R. Gregory Christie creates distinct illustrations that skillfully evoke the turbulence of these significant events. A powerhouse.

Merci Suárez Changes Gears, written by Meg Medina, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763690496.

Some books grab you the moment you start reading them, and I certainly had that experience with this touching, funny, and heartfelt middle grade novel. Meg Medina expertly juggles many aspects of sixth grader Merci’s life: struggles with her beloved grandfather who is beginning to show signs of dementia, coping with a bully who makes life miserable for her, her dreams of getting a cool bike (hard when the family’s money situation is rough), and being forced to be a boy’s Sunshine Buddy. Instantly lovable, this book has a memorable heroine who bounces from one captivating circumstance to the next.

 

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, written by Stacy McAnulty, published by Random House, ISBN: 978-1524767570.

This might be favorite 2018 title to book talk to middle schoolers looking for a smart, snappy read. The premise immediately hooks them as I quickly describe it: girl gets hit by lightning, becomes a math genius as a result, and wants to keep her gift top secret from her classmates. Luckily for the reader, McAnulty backs this intriguing premise up with memorable characters, compelling twists, and relatable emotions. It’s a blast.

My Life in the Middle, written by Lila Quintero Weaver, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763692315.

Based on Weaver’s own experiences, this evocative historical novel, set in 1970 Alabama, chronicles several fraught months in the life of a sixth grade Argentinian immigrant named Lu. She sits in the middle row of her newly integrated classroom between the black and white students. Lu emerges as an emphatic, humane first person narrator who loves to run and hopes to find her way during troubled times.

 

Power Forward, written by Hena Khan, illustrated by Sally Wern Compert, and published by Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 978-1534411999.

This early chapter book kicks off a fast-paced new series called On Point and stars a boy named Zayd who loves hitting the court more than playing violin (he wants to make his loving Pakastani-American parents happy though). This page turner mixes humor and heart with the basketball action, and creates a likable protagonist in Zayd. Readers care about his situation and will want to read future installments to see what happens next.

The Prince and the Dressmaker, illustrated and written by Jen Wang, published by First Second, ISBN: 978-1626723634.

Exquisite illustrations accentuate the charm of this lovely graphic novel (set in 19th century Paris) about gender and identity. A young seamstress named Frances starts designing clothes for Prince Sebastian who asks her to create dresses so Sebastian can take the city by storm dressed as fashion sensation Lady Crystallia. Dazzling and cinematic, with images that flow with graceful finesse across the page.

Rebound, written by Kwame Alexander, published by HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0544868137.

Kwame Alexander serves up a free verse prequel to his Newbery winning The Crossover. Crackling with energy as Alexander’s poems explode on the page, this heartfelt novel whisks the readers back to the ’80s to show Chuck Bell, the father of the twins in The Crossover, deal with change on and off the court. As much as I love The Crossover, I think I like this moving story even more. It’s a real 3 pointer.

The Season of Styx Malone, written by Kekla Magoon, published by Wendy Lamb Books, ISBN: 978-1524715953.

Ah, the wondrous dangers of boyhood and outside play, depicted here with thoughtful grace by Kekla Magoon. This haunting slow burn of a novel introduces readers to two brothers who befriend the supercool Styx. This coming of age story casts a spell from its very first page and haunts the reader. I read this back in the late summer and still haven’t been able to shake it from my head.

Spooked! How a Radio Broadcast and The War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America, written by Gail Jarrow, published by Calkins Creek, ISBN: 978-1629797762.

This exceptional work of non-fiction transports the reader back to 1938 when Orson Welles (currently in film news because of the recent Netflix release of his restored lost film The Other Side of the Wind) and his Mercury radio crew convinced listeners that evil outer space beings landed on Earth and started attacking everyone. This beautifully researched work walks the reader through all that transpired, and the effect feels immersive and visceral.

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, written by Jonathan Auxier, published by Abrams, ISBN: 978-1419731402.

Oh, how I love this magical and extremely moving tale set in Victorian England. My favorite books offer a strong sense of place, and Auxier does not disappoint in this department. I feel as if I’m in those dangerous chimneys with 11-year-old Nan Sparrow, a chimney sweep of great talent. Sweep takes a fantastical turn when Nan meets and befriends a golem made of ash and coal. By the end of the book I became surprised by how verklempt Sweep had made me. This is fantasy writing at its very strongest, its most potent. It feels like a new modern classic.

My favorite 30 picture books of 2018

I looked at hundreds of picture books in 2018 and loved a lot of them. Here are 30 of my favorites in alphabetical order by title:

Alma and How She Got Her Name, illustrated and written by Juana Martinez-Neal, published by Candlewick Press, ISBN: 978-0763693558.

Spanish edition: Alma y Cómo Obtuvo Su Nombre, illustrated and written by Juana Martinez-Neal, published by Candlewick Press, ISBN: 978-0763693589.

In Juana Martinez-Neal’s beautiful and playful Alma and How She Got Her Name (also available in Spanish: Alma y Cómo Obtuvo Su Nombre), the young heroine first gripes about her long name. It’s so long it never fits on a single piece of paper. After hearing her complaint, Alma’s bespectacled Daddy tells her the story of how she received her full name. A loving family tale emerges on the ensuing pages. Using graphite, colored pencils, and print transfers on handmade textured paper, the artist gives us spare bursts of colors (muted pinks and blues popping in mostly grayish-white spreads) that jump off the page.

A Big Mooncake for Little Star, illustrated and written by Grace Lin, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316404488.

Wow, what a cosmic delight A Big Mooncake for Little Star is. In a quick’s author note, Grace Lin writes how she wanted to create a tale that celebrates the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, while giving the story a mythological feel. So Lin gives young readers a deliciously surreal night-time romp that feels like a classic long lost Chinese folktale. Set against black backgrounds, the book introduces us right away (on the endpapers) to a little girl named Little Star, who wears striking star-covered pajamas. She helps her Mama (wearing similar PJs) make a giant mooncake (the traditional food enjoyed during the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival) that indeed looks scrumptious. After the mother places the moon in the sky, she reminds her daughter not to touch the Big Mooncake until instructed. Enchanting and lovely, Grace Lin’s latest will make little ones go “whoa” in between appreciative giggles.

blue, illustrated and written by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, published by Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, ISBN: 978-1626720664.

In terms of overall design, Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s blue works as a companion to her earlier Caldecott Honor winning concept book green. The books share the same look (the covers resemble each other thanks to the font, the use of lower case letters). Also, Seeger employs similar artistic techniques (acrylic paint on canvas; small peek-a-book die cuts throughout). Only two words appear on his each spread. Yet unlike greenblue tells a linear story that captures the complexity of the color blue which calls to mind things that are warm and comforting, but also sad and haunting. The emotional story at the heart of blue is of a boy and his dog. Seeger gives us snapshots of their lives as they grow up together. A page that says “baby blue” shows a puppy and baby snuggling, “ocean blue” a shot of them playing in the water, and so on. Using various shades of blue, Seeger conveys a wide variety of moods and emotions. Especially when the dog starts to age, and heartbreak becomes inevitable. blue never feels manipulative or cheap. It earns its tears honestly.

 

Dreamers, illustrated and written by Yuyi Morales, Holiday House/Neal Porter Books, ISBN: 978-0823440559.

Soñadores (Spanish edition): 978-0823442584.

Always a surrealist, Morales gives each illustration a dreamy, off-kilter edge. Above all, Dreamers/Soñadores, a deeply personal look at the author/illustrator’s own immigrant experience, is a book above love. A love between mother and child. A love for creating art. A love for books. A love for language. A love for libraries. In times so troubling and heartbreaking, Morales gives the reader a book filled with hope. I have read the book several times and still the final words lift my heart every time: “We are stories. We are two languages. We are lucha. We are resilience. We are hope. WE are dreamers, soñadores of the world. We are Love Amor Love.” Beautiful, just beautiful.

Ducks Away, illustrated by Judy Horacek, written by Mem Fox, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-1338185669.

Originally published in Australia in 2016, but finally arriving in the US in January 2018, this preschool-friendly mathematical romp stars a mother duck and five little ducklings. While crossing a bridge, the little birds each fall, one by one, into the water below, and this dramatic action leads to a sound and satisfying lesson in subtraction. Horacek’s adorable illustrations are crystal clear, easy to follow, and Fox’s language has a compelling rhythm that works with the youngest of crowds. I have read this to many groups and the children love it. Especially the ending which has the feathered little ones begging their mom to take the plunge too. A fun addition to preschool storytimes.

The Field, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, written by Baptiste Paul, published by North South, ISBN: 978-0735843127.

I wish The Field had a subtitle. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a solid title. However, it only slightly hints at the messy muddy gooey action found in this rollicking book about a group of kids enjoying a futbol (soccer) match in the Saint Lucia rain. I wish the subtitle could be something like Epic Muddy Futbol Match. Or Squish Squish Kick Kick. But then again, as a title, The Field is quick, to the point, and has a nostalgic feel. Interjected words in Creole fuel Baptiste Paul’s zesty prose. Alcántara’s figures delight (I love the cow’s expressions as a child attempts to shoo them to a different part of the field). The excitement of the game is palpable. Then when the rains come the book soars to another level of coolness, visually and as a story. The players decide to not let some raindrops get in the way of their fun, and soon they are dashing, splashing, slip-sliding, and belly flopping in the mud.

Hello Hello, illustrated and written by Brendan Wenzel, published by Chronicle Books, ISBN: 978-1452150147.

The wow factor. That’s what Brendan Wenzel’s latest celebration of the natural world Hello Hello has throughout, but especially when you reach a double page spread that is filled with animals big and small. Against a spare white background, each creature manages to pop off the page and make an impression. And all of them have those Brendan Wenzel Eyes (I call them Wenzelian)–googly and warm and friendly (he truly has a unique, distinct style). His love for these animals is apparent. Although Hello Hello can be seen as a fun romp that finds similarities and differences between a vast variety of species, the message he delivers is sobering one: many of them are endangered, near threatened, vulnerable, or critically endangered. He invites readers young and old to try and save them.

A House That Once Was, illustrated by Lane Smith, written by Julie Fogliano, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626723145.

Two kids (a boy and a girl) stumble on a deserted house with boarded up and smashed windows. They climb in, carefully avoiding the jagged glass. Once inside they explore the rooms and wonder about the home’s departed occupants. Why did they leave these many objects (books, bottles of olive oil, even a set of house keys, others) behind, the children wonder? Thanks to Julie Fogliano’s vivid poetic language, A House That Was Once Was is a story that begs to be read aloud…but in a whispering voice. Lane Smith’s inventive illustrations add to the mysterious atmosphere. Smith has these amazing ability to create works with cool-looking textures. The spreads with the children walking around the house have an almost washed-out look to them. You feel as if you are breathing in the dust.

Imagine!, illustrated and written by Raúl Colón, published by Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 978-1481462730.

There have many books about children discovering art. There have been many books celebrating the joys of having a fun day in the city (and in the case of Imagine!, New York City). But there has never been a book quite like Raúl Colón’s Imagine!, a simply fantabulous wordless follow-up to the brilliant artist’s Draw! (2014). Imagine! mixes two things this singular artist loves: enjoying artistic masterpieces and living in the city. It’s a deeply personal work, the same way Draw! (about a bed-bound boy who escapes into his drawings of safari animals) is. And it’s an exhilarating piece of work…and funny and witty, too.

In The Past, illustrated by Matthew Trueman, poems by David Elliott, published by Candlewick Press, ISBN: 978-0763660734.

Raise your hand if you know a child who loves dinosaurs. Okay, you can put your hands down now. Poet David Elliott joins forces with artist Matthew Trueman to create one of the most dynamic books about prehistoric life  I have ever encountered. Just look at those amazing portraits that would show perfectly across the room to large storytime groups. Using mixed media, Trueman gets the reader up close and personal with a Megalodon with its ginormous teeth, a Mammuthus with its enormous tusks, a Quetzalcoatlus with its imposing beak, among many others. Meanwhile, Elliott creates witty, sometimes second person poems that both celebrate and tease them about their grandeur. About the aforementioned Brachytrachelopan: “And that name!/You should renounce it./It takes a genius/to pronounce it.”

Julián Is a Mermaid, illustrated and written by Jessica Love, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763690458.

Some picture books feel like instant classics. You look at the art and immerse yourself in the book’s world and by the end, you cannot think of the world without the book. Julián Is a Mermaid, released on April 23, 2018, joins this esteemed list. I know this seems like an over-the-top compliment, but seriously, this wondrous work has earned these raves, this praise, all the starred reviews. And even praise from the divine RuPaul! The book ends with a parade, a celebration, slightly surreal but positively heartwarming. And the fitting ending for a book that deserves to be celebrated.

King Alice, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, published by Feiwel and Friends, ISBN: 978-1250047496, ARC reviewed, to be released: September 25, 2018.

There’s a detail I love in Matthew Cordell’s absolutely hilarious King Alice, about an exhausted father trying to keep up with his imaginative, rambunctious, and demanding (but lovable) daughter on what appears to be the umpteenth snow day in a row. Whenever the titular character thinks of something new to do she doesn’t say “Oh, I have an idea,” she yells “Idea!” and then proceeds to reveal the new plan. This may seem strangely specific to praise, but hey in comedy, timing is everything. And in picture book comedy, the way the writer words things matters. The succinct way Alice says “Idea!’ says everything about her character: she’s confident, blunt, and you better go along with her IDEA. But most of all: it’s funny…every time she says it.

 

The Little Red Fort, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez, written by Brenda Maier, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-0545859196.

Serving up a fresh retelling of a classic folktale takes skill and talent. There have been many versions of The Little Red Hen for example. So how does one offer a new, unique take on the tale’s rather simple plot (hen asks for help when making bread, and everyone else says “not I,” causing the hen to do all the work on her own)? Luckily clever writer Brenda Maier has found a way to do exactly that with The Little Red Fort, a witty and vibrant new addition that would be perfect in storytimes not just about fractured fairy tales, but also about girl power, teamwork, resourcefulness, and siblings. Not to mention mothers and daughters bonding together to create something really really cool. Vibrant, colorful work from the gifted Sonia Sánchez.

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein, illustrated by Júlia Sarda, written by Linda Bailey, published by Tundra, ISBN: 978-1770495593.

Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein turns 200 this year, and this properly creepy and goth picture book biography emerges as a perfect way to introduce young readers to the 18-year-old author who created it. I pretty much love everything about this account: the layout, the design, the book’s dimensions (tall, like the monster), and of course the art and writing. Júlia Sarda’s brilliant, slightly macabre (but not overly so) art captures the eye right at the very start, and Linda Bailey’s text has an interactive immediacy to it that captivates the reader. She asks questions throughout, involving the audience. She skillfully employs the present tense, and this grabs you and never lets go.

Mommy’s Khimar, illustrated by Ebony Glenn, written by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, published by Salaam Reads (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), ISBN: 978-1534400597.

“A khimar is a flowing scarf my mommy wears,” the young girl narrator says at the very start of this vibrant, colorful book that radiates joy and pride. The instantly lovable child reveals that her mother has many khimars of different colors. Some have stripes, others have polka dots, some have tassels, and others beads. She loves all of them (although the yellow one is her favorite). Many of the best 2018 picture books pop with child-like wonder and enthusiasm, and Mommy’s Khimar emerges as the happiest of them all thanks to Thompkins-Bigelow’s warm, energetic prose (perfect for storytimes) and Glenn’s effervescent digital illustrations. The drawings in this charmer flow across the page, with the girl’s body language and expressions inviting readers to share her sense of fun.

Neck & Neck, illustrated and written by Elise Parsley, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316466745.

It’s Giraffe Vs. Giraffe-Shaped Balloon! Neck & Neck chronicles a game of one-upsman(giraffe)ship that gets sillier and funnier. I have always enjoyed Parsley’s work, but Neck & Neck has popped out as my new favorite by her. The characters’ expressions, her use of perspective and white space on some spreads, the narrative’s twists and turns, and a satisfying resolution all add up to a book that should become a staple in rollicking, humor-packed storytimes.

Nothing Stopped Sophie, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, written by Cheryl Bardoe, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316278201.

Bardoe’s crisp prose effectively gets inside Sophie’s head, explaining how “Math, with its clear and simple laws./Math, with its strong sense of order” helped Sophie make sense of her world. The great illustrator Barbara McClintock also takes the reader inside Sophie’s mind. She fills her illustrations (colorful markers, gouache, collage) with witty mathematical details. What’s especially impressive about Nothing Stopped Sophie is how it manages to feel both epic and intimate. It covers many years in its subject’s life. And yet not a single word feels wasted. The book never gets bogged down in excessive detail. The child reader walks away feeling that they have been on a journey through Sophie’s life, appreciating that she achieved so much and never gave up.

Ocean Meets Sky, created by The Fan Brothers, published by Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 978-1481470377.

Brothers Terry and Eric Fan (known for their much loved The Night Gardener) create magical moments that feel both epic and intimate, universal and personal. Ocean Meets Sky, which they wrote and illustrated, takes the reader to the high seas, and the journey is laced with philosophical longing. A child named Finn remembers his now deceased Grandfather once telling him about a place where the ocean meets sky. On what would have been his elder’s 90th birthday, the resourceful boy builds a boat and searches for this cherished place.The spare yet poignant language and the graphite illustrations (colored digitally) work together to make Ocean Meets Sky one of the most loving, memorable dedications to a loved one I have ever seen.

A Parade of Elephants, illustrated and written by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow Books (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062668271.

The high-spirited and deceptively simple A Parade of Elephants has a bit of a rollicking spirit, but although the five pastel-colored beasts march about, the book still glimmers with a gentleness that invites reflective “aaaaahs” and “oooohs” from young children. Presented in the same square-like dimensions as the fun EggParade serves that same preschool audience. It has a bold font and a clear design; thick borders surround the characters. After an eventful journey, Henkes brings things to a quiet resolution with the elephants exhausted, yawing and stretching…and then in a magical moment that moves the book up to a higher level they lift their trunks and trumpet. Stars pop out of their trunks, scatter, and then fill the skies. And quietly and surprisingly A Parade of Elephants becomes one of the strongest bedtime books of the year.

The Patchwork Bike, illustrated by Van Thahn Rudd, written by Maxine Beneba Clarke, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536200317.

Some picture books come along and they rattle your world because they feel new and alive, offering fresh insight and an innovative approach when telling a story. The Patchwork Bike, first published in Australia (where it won a Children’s Book Council of Australia award) and New Zealand in 2016 and now being released (thankfully) here in the States in 2018, is one such book, a visually inventive look at how a girl and her brothers zip, zoom, and whoosh along on their bicycle made from various spare recycled parts. The words pop and zing, the illustrations burst with exhilarating energy. I have never seen a book that looked and sounded like this one.

The Rabbit Listened, illustrated and written by Cori Doerrfeld, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0735229358.

A comforting book that mixes heartbreak with humor, and one that taps into a deep understanding of a child’s emotional landscape. Doerrfeld’s quick, direct prose snaps; there isn’t a single wasted word. In a beautiful moment, one of the sweetest rabbits in all of children’s picture book history, comes to Taylor’s side and quietly cozies in, not pressuring Taylor to do anything at all. This is great advice when encountering someone who is sad: let the person have their emotions, feel their sadness, don’t tell them how to feel, just be there. It’s all handled so beautifully.

Seeing Into Tomorrow, biography and illustrations by Nina Crews, haiku by Richard Wright, published by Millbrook Press, ISBN: 978-1512418651.

Thanks to her distinct photocollage technique, Nina Crews’ books look like no others. And her latest Seeing Into Tomorrow emerges as a vibrant and moving celebration of boyhood with often stylized, overlapping photographs (causing a panoramic look) of boys enjoying the outside world. A beautiful haiku by the legendary African American writer Richard Wright inspires and accompanies each double page spread. And if you are a fan of Donald Crews’ Caldecott Honor winning classic Freight Train (and his other great books), you will happily notice that he appears in one of the photographs, standing with his grandson while looking at, of course, a freight train!

Teddy’s Favorite Toy, illustrated by Madeline Valentine, written by Christian Trimmer, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1481480802.

A delightful celebration of imaginative play that also defies conservative notions of gender, the kinds of toys boys play with (and does so in the most nonchalant, least preachy way possible). Written with succinct grace by Christian Trimmer, Teddy’s Favorite Toy tells of a  very expressive boy who loves all kinds of toys, including his supercool truck that he can sit on, a hula hoop, a rocket, a puzzle, and others…but he loves an amazing multi-talented doll the most. After accidentally tossing the beloved toy out, Mom must spring into action to save the day, performing moves that Zoë Bell would envy. Illustrator Madeline Valentine’s warm and amusing illustrations, rendered in gouache and pencils and then composed digitally, do a splendiferous job capturing the action.

Thank You, Omu!, illustrated and written by Oge Mora, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316431248.

2018 has been a great year for picture books celebrating gracious, generous behavior. In these troubled times, these heartfelt creations have done a superlative job showing readers (not just child readers) that kindness can still exist and empathy can prevail. Oge Mora’s tender and very personal Thank You, Omu! certainly emerges as yet another prime example of a beautifully rendered work about goodness and caring behavior. Thank You, Omu! does a lovely job capturing the beautiful soul of this compassionate title character who treats an entire neighborhood to her scrumptious stew. Mora uses inventive collage (acrylic paint, china markers, pastels, patterned paper, and old-book clippings) and as a result, each spread bursts with color and child-like wonder. Without feeling cluttered, each image invites exploration, possessing clever details designed for re-visits and re-examinations.

They Say Blue, illustrated and written by Jillian Tamaki, published by Abrams, ISBN: 978-1419728518.

How absolutely gorgeous and thoughtful this book is. With swirling brush strokes and flowing vibrant imagery, this philosophical creation gets inside the head of a curious girl thinking about the natural world around her, and, when thinking about the blood flowing in her veins and the heart pumping said blood, inside her. Removing the cover offers an abstract visual treat: a special surprise painting of birds and splashes of color. There isn’t a plot per se, but we readers follow the girl as she thinks about the colors around her, trying, for example, to understand why blue ocean water suddenly becomes clear as you hold it.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy, created by poet Tony Medina & 13 Artists, published by Penny Candy Books, ISBN: 978-0998799940.

Just look at the illustrators involved with this project. Listed in the order found on the back of the book: Floyd Cooper. Cozbi A. Cabrera. Skip Hill. Tiffany McKnight. Robert Liu-Trujillo. Keith Mallett. Shawn K. Alexander. Kesha Bruce. Brianna McCarthy. R. Gregory Christie. Ekua Holmes. Javaka Steptoe. Chandra Cox. 13 of the very best artists working in the field today. The brilliant Tony Medina has penned 13 poems (each written in the tanka form: 31 syllables over 5 lines) about black boys, and each poem is accompanied by a piece of art that beautifully captures the moods of Medina’s creations.

This Is My Eye: A New York Story, pictures and text by Neela Vaswani, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763676162. 

Many books for young readers instruct the audience to look at the world around them, to examine their surroundings. The vibrant new photographic essay This Is My Eye, with its wondrous views of urban beauty, makes one of the strongest cases for people to do so. And while we are at it, the book suggests, why not take some cool photographs? The author’s note states that she snapped more than half of the photographs on a smartphone (the others on a “refurbished digital SLR camera”). So reader, you can do this too!

The Truth About Bears, illustrated and written by Maxwell Eaton III, published by Roaring Brook (A Neal Porter Book), ISBN: 978-1626726666.

Maxwell Eaton III promises “seriously funny facts about your favorite animals” on the cover of this book and wow, does he ever deliver. This fantastic title zips along from one punny joke to the next, all the while unveiling some fascinating child-friendly facts about bears. Also, like Brendan Wenzel’s playful yet sobering wake-up call Hello Hello, Eaton reminds young readers that many of these creatures are threatened and/or endangered, hopefully planting seeds about wildlife conservation in their minds. Eaton’s cartoon-like illustrations invite us into the animals’ worlds; he uses warm colors that work well with the amusing, lighthearted, yet at times subversive tone. This excellent series includes books about dolphins, hippos, and soon crocodiles.

The Visitor, illustrated and written by Antje Damm, published by Gecko Press, ISBN:978-1776571888.

Antje Damm creates a diorama-like world for a fearful character named Elise who resides in a stylized three-dimensional space. Damm isn’t afraid to make the place look colorless and bleak. Suddenly a blue paper airplane flies into Elise’s neat and orderly space and she freaks out, becoming too scared to sleep. Damm shows us what Elise fears: that even more airplanes will come soaring into her house. Visually, the book rises to a whole other level of inventiveness when a child comes the next day to claim his plane. He brings bright, warm colors with him. At first Elise finds him unwelcome, but soon his youthful curiosity and energy win her over, and the colors start filling the room. It’s absolutely enthralling, and it all leads to a great final moment that feels reassuring and hopeful.

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, illustrated and written by Ryan T. Higgins, published by Disney/Hyperion, ISBN: 978-1368003551.

Ryan T. Higgins once again proves to be a master of comic timing. This ferociously funny tale serves as a “first day of school” etiquette book (and possibly an anti-bullying book) that also spoofs this purposeful kidlit genre. In the text, Higgins delivers his story with a straight face, and this makes every startling visual joke in the illustrations all the more effective and hilarious. And his striking art (created using scans of treated clayboard for textures, graphite, ink, and Photoshop) pleases the eye as the outlandish situations tickle the funny bone. The book’s long rectangular dimensions help create a CinemaScope effect that makes the book an easy choice for diabolically minded storytimes.

 

Honorable Mentions: I also loved All of Us (illustrated and written by Carin Berger), Are You Scared, Darth Vader? (illustrated and written by Adam Rex), The Day You Begin (illustrated by Rafael López, written by Jacqueline Woodson), Dude! (illustrated by Dan Santat, written by Aaron Reynolds), Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years (illustrated by David Litchfield written by Stacy McAnulty), The 5′ O Clock Band (illustrated by Bryan Collier, written by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews), The FUNeral (illustrated and written by Matt James), Good Dog (illustrated and written by Cori Doerrfeld), Grains of Sand (illustrated and written by Sibylle Delacroix), Grandma’s Purse (illustrated and written by Vanessa Brantley-Newton), Grow Up David! (illustrated and written by David Shannon), Hello Lighthouse (illustrated and written by Sophie Blackall), A Home in the Barn (illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, written by Margaret Wise Brown), The Honeybee (illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, written by Kirsten Hall), If I Had a Horse (illustrated and written by Gianna Marino), Interrupting Chicken and the Elephant of Surprise (illustrated and written by David Ezra Stein), Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor (illustrated by Felicita Sala, written by Patricia Valdez), My Hair Is a Garden (illustrated and written by Cozbi A. Cabrera), Never Satisfied (illustrated and retold by Dave Horowitz), New Shoes (illustrated and written by Chris Raschka), Night Job (illustrated by G. Brian Karas, written by Karen Hesse), Otis and Will Discover the Deep (illustrated by Katherine Roy, written by Barb Rosenstock), Play This Book (illustrated by Daniel Wiseman, written by Jessica Young), Rock ‘N’ Roll Soul (illustrated by Matthew Cordell, written by Susan Verde), Sometimes Rain (illustrated by Diane Sudyka, written by Meg Fleming), Star in the Jar (illustrated by Sarah Massini, written by Sam Hay), The Stuff of Stars (illustrated by Ekua Holmes, written by Marion Dane Bauer), The Tiptoeing Tiger (illustrated and written by Phillipa Leathers), The Very Last Castle (illustrated by Mark Pett, written by Travis Jonker), Vivid: Poems and Notes about Color (illustrated and written by Julie Paschkis), and The Wall in the Middle of the Book (illustrated and written by Jon Agee).

What a fantastic year!!!

Quick takes: where did 2018 go? Catching up with a bunch of 2018 highlights

Wow, 2018 zipped by quickly. I thought I had all the time in the world to praise the many fine picture books of 2018. Then I looked at the calendar and saw the date November 20 and whoa! my brain went into slight panic mode. So this post will be a bit whirlwind as I mention a bunch of titles that impressed and delighted me throughout a very strong picture book year.

Do Not Lick This Book (Roaring Press, 9781250175366). Okay, raise your hands if you think someone just might defy the book’s title and lick the book? Or do you think it will have many reaching for the hand sanitizer after reading the wildly engaging facts about microbes? This funny and creative non-fiction picture book introduces readers to a microbe named Min, presented as a rather adorable animated blue blob with friendly round eyes. Creators Idan Ben-Barak and Julian Frost excel at presenting Min’s minuscule size. First they ask readers to look at a tiny dot and then blow their minds by saying that 3,422, 167 (“give or take a few million”) microbes could fit on that dot. The book deftly mixes illustrations with photographs of such objects as paper really, really, really, really close up. It’s a terrific science book that puts the miniature world in perspective.

The Honeybee (Atheneum, 978-1481469975). Speaking directly to the reader, writer Kristen Hall builds a buzzing excitement on the very first page of this fast-paced, rhythmically satisfying examination of what makes a honeybee supercool. Artist Isabelle Arsenault’s stylized, fanciful drawings catch the lively winged creatures in motion: clapping, flapping, tapping, searching, perching, and then practically spinning with joy when they see a majestic, colorful flower inviting them to take a sip. The book goes to a whole new higher level when they dance a most enjoyable waggly, wiggly dance. The book emerges as one of the livelier reads of the year. So much happens and yet nothing feels rushed. It’s sublime.

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles (Knopf, 978-0399557255) works beautifully as a picture book biography that transports young readers back to the “days of long skirts and afternoon teas.” A time when a young girl named Joan defied societal conventions by enjoying the company of real live reptiles, not dolls. She grows up to be one of the foremost experts of all things scaly, a person dedicated to shattering myths and fears about the reptile world. She becomes the first woman to run the London Zoo’s Reptile House. Author Patricia Valdez’s language zips and sings, and Felicita Sala’s witty illustrations do a great, playful job capturing Joan’s excitement about the creatures (I love the drawing that shows her walking her crocodile on a leash while a startled boy looks with awe out a window). Picture book biography writing and illustration at their strongest.

Lovely Beasts: The Surprising Truth (Balzer + Bray, 978-0062741615). This handsomely designed title asks readers to look at a supposedly fearsome creatures in a new way, to go beyond first impressions and see the gentleness and vulnerability within. Author Kate Gardner’s approach is effective and straightforward, introducing each animal with an adjective meant to startle or make the reader feel unease about the creature. Then a flip of the page and we see the animal in a more tender manner with child-friendly facts that soothe and shatter misconceptions. For example, we see a “fierce” gorilla looking tough on one page, and then being a loving papa on the next. Heidi Smith’s evocative art does a great job showing both the “mean” and “reassuring” side of each lovely beast.

A Storytelling of Ravens (Groundwood, 978-1554989126) plays around with animal collective names, with each witty double page spread making a quick jokey observation about the humorous, outlandish animal behavior depicted. Writer Kyle Lukoff doesn’t waste a single word here; succinct yet rich lines like “the memory of elephants knew the peanut field had to be around here somewhere” make the reader chuckle with ease. And illustrator Natalie Nelson takes each comical riff and runs with it, creating captivating illustrations with gouache paint, ink drawings, found photographs and digital collage. Her animal creations are a wonder to behold, popping with joy off the page. It’s hard to pick what’s funniest: the sloth of green and pink bears, the increasingly impatient business of ferrets waiting for their pal held up at the watercooler (a pond), or the parliament of owls cringing when one bird gives a “lone hoot of dissent.” Or perhaps another one of the creative spreads. It’s a joy.

 

 

 

Picture book of the day: a beautiful, personal story about giving in Thank You, Omu!

thankyouomu

Thank You, Omu!, illustrated and written by Oge Mora, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316431248.

As I have mentioned in a previous review, 2018 has been a great year for picture books celebrating gracious, generous behavior. In these troubled times, these heartfelt creations have done a superlative job showing readers (not just child readers) that kindness can still exist and empathy can prevail. Oge Mora’s tender and very personal Thank You, Omu! certainly emerges as yet another prime example of a beautifully rendered work about goodness and caring behavior. Mora says in the Author’s Note that she based the story’s central character named Omu (which means “Queen” in the Nigerian language of Igbo) on her own grandmother, a woman who loved to cook and made sure that everyone, family members, neighbors, anyone passing by, had a seat at her table. This gives the book a real power.

Thank You, Omu! does a lovely job capturing the beautiful soul of this compassionate woman. Mora uses inventive collage (acrylic paint, china markers, pastels, patterned paper, and old-book clippings) and as a result, each spread bursts with color and child-like wonder. Without feeling cluttered, each image invites exploration, possessing clever details designed for re-visits and re-examinations. The story itself is fairly simple but never simplistic. Omu makes a stew that simmers on the stove, and the exquisite, yummy smells drift out her window. Intrigued, a small child, and then a police office, and then a hot dog vendor, and then a whole bunch of passers-by knock on Omu’s door and ask for a taste. Mora does a fantastic job with the cityscape and the images of people interacting with Omu. Also, the story has a great flow and arc that makes it perfect for storytimes about food, community, and giving.

I love studying Mora’s art here. She gives each image a special spin. The patterned paper used in the stew. The way she shows the smoky scent floating up out of the bowls Omu has given each new character. And I love the ending Mora serves up. Omu panics a little at the end because she has no stew for herself, but then a sweet ending has everyone returning to give her some tasty gifts of their own. Yes, maybe it’s predictable, and it’s been in other picture books about the topic, but this little twist feels very satisfying in Thank You, Omu!. The ending feels just right and still feels fresh. I cannot wait to see more books from this immensely talented author/illustrator.

Picture book of the day: The Wall in the Middle of the Book is another deadpan triumph for Jon Agee

The Wall in the Middle of the Book, illustrated and written by Jon Agee, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0525555452, ARC reviewed.

Is there anyone better at chronicling the misadventures of oblivious characters than Jon Agee? In Life on Mars, a child blasts off to the red planet hoping to discover life there, complains because they cannot find any, completely unaware that a giant Martian has been following them. It’s Only Stanley stars a dog who keeps waking his human family up with loud noises and strange behavior. The people act all “no need to worry” until they discover too late that Stanley has turned their house into a rocket blasting off to the moon. Agee’s latest, The Wall in the Middle of the Book, serves as another deadpan addition to Agee’s comical oeuvre.

This rollicking tale zeroes in on a child (gender not specified–yay!) dressed in armor who lives on the left hand side of the book. There’s a wall going down the middle of the book (a brilliant use of the gutter). The proud tyke proclaims that having a wall is a “good thing” because the structure keeps all the scary stuff on the right hand side of the book (an ogre, a tiger, a rhino) out. However, many visual cues show that danger exists in this so-called peaceful oasis. Suddenly, mysteriously, the waters start to rise, causing the pint-sized knight to climb a ladder (Agee throws in a witty visual touch: sensing that things are band in the left hand world, the animals on the right hand side run with fright). The kid goes on about the horrible ogre that will possibly eat them up, not seeing the horrifying animals floating in the water: a crocodile, imposing giant fish munching on each other.

Agee brings things to a wonderful, satisfying close with the ogre saving the day, and the child realizing how foolish they have been to fear him. 2018 has been filled with so many great picture books about empathy and understanding, that manage to serve up lessons without feeling all treacly. The Wall in the Middle of the Book joins this esteemed list.

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy is truly a publishing event

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy, created by poet Tony Medina & 13 Artists, published by Penny Candy Books, ISBN: 978-0998799940.

Just look at the illustrators involved with this project. Listed in the order found on the back of the book: Floyd Cooper. Cozbi A. Cabrera. Skip Hill. Tiffany McKnight. Robert Liu-Trujillo. Keith Mallett. Shawn K. Alexander. Kesha Bruce. Brianna McCarthy. R. Gregory Christie. Ekua Holmes. Javaka Steptoe. Chandra Cox. 13 of the very best artists working in the field today. The brilliant Tony Medina has penned 13 poems (each written in the tanka form: 31 syllables over 5 lines) about black boys, and each poem is accompanied by a piece of art that beautifully captures the moods of Medina’s creations.

Cooper’s warm portrait of a smiling little boy (love the bowtie) in the arms of his parents fits the coziness of “Anacostia Angel” for example. Cabrera brings a quiet beauty to “Little Mister May” which shows a kid proudly standing in a suit his Granny made for him so he looks nice for church. Tiffany McKnight brings a burst of fun retro ’70s color to “The Charmer” about a boy whose smile charms girls and makes the other boys jealous. Each turn of the page offers a surprising new image. Some somber (Liu-Trujillo’s “One-Way Ticket” shows a solemn boy carrying groceries while Medina writes of financial hardship), some abstract (Kesha Bruce’s quilt-like “Do Not Enter”), and some surreal and dream-like (R. Gregory Christie’s figure of a giant-sized boy trying in vain to catch a bus in “Athlete’s Broke Bus Blues”).

Those studying illustrations will find a lot to fest on here. Just compare the collages created by Ekua Holmes (“Brothers Gonna Work It Out”) and Javaka Steptoe (“Cat at the Curb”): the former bursting with color, the latter offering a more nocturnal scene (love the cat looking straight at the reader). All the while Medina serves up striking image after striking image with his words. The “Dreadlock halo crown” of the “Street Corner Prophet” (haunting art from Brianna McCarthy), the “South east Benin mask/Face like a road map of kin” in “Images of Kin” (wow, look at how illustrator Skip Hall mixes the past and the contemporary in the art), and the “We preachers’ brothers/Grew up crawlin’ under pews” in “My Soul to Keep” (Shawn K. Alexander’s drawing calls to mind mosaics). Chandra Cox serves up a whimsical image of a boy tossing his space age science project in the air (“Givin’ Back to the Community”), while Keith Mallet evokes a hot summer day in his painting accompanying “Lazy Hazy Daze.”

The poems and the illustrations work together to create a one-of-a-kind book that is truly one of 2018’s very best.