Picture books of the day: embracing nature in three impeccable offerings

Take a walk (or a boat ride or a bike ride or a rollercoaster ride) on the wild side with these three terrific titles.

Bear Island, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, published by Feiwel and Friends, ISBN: 978-1250317162.

Caldecott winner Cordell (Wolf in the Snow) delivers a heartfelt look at grief in this tender, visually striking story of a girl named Louise who misses her recently deceased dog Charlie…big time. The way Cordell introduces this sensitive situation immediately puts a lump in the throat. We first see a ball. A flip of the page shows Louise using the prized object to play fetch with her dog. But then we see her standing alone, staring at the ball. Readers only have one glimpse of Charlie and instantly feel Louise’s loss. She lives in a house on the shores of a lake and most of the story shows Louise rowing out to a small, nearby island. There she encounters all kinds of wildlife, including a bear who startles the dickens out of her and the other creatures. The bear’s sudden appearance elicits a surprising response in Louise: she becomes overcome with anger because Charlie is no longer with her. And she confronts the bear with a tremendous ROOAARR!! In Cordell’s hands, this moving allegorical story feels transcendent. His trademark pen and ink (with watercolor and sometimes gouache) drawings both capture the beauty of Louise’s surroundings (love those butterflies) as well as the jittery anxiety and sadness the girl experiences. It’s yet another fab book from this gifted artist.

I Am a Bird, illustrated by Hyewon Yum, written by Hope Lim, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536208917.

This quiet gem does a beautiful job depicting the dangers of first impressions. It touches on how people behave when they do not receive the positive reaction from someone they expect and feel they deserve. In this case, a bird-happy little girl, the “I” in the title, has a bit of a snit fit. This child loves riding on the back of her dad’s bike, watching the birds, and waving at the passers-by. When one woman does not wave back, she decides that she indeed does not like the lady. The next time the kid sees her, she gives her the ultimate snub. But then by the end of the book, she discovers something about the woman that gives her an absolute change of heart. They share a love for feathered friends. Yum’s warm illustrations (colored pencil, gouache) chronicle this girl’s emotional journey with finesse. The artist uses white space beautifully. Lim’s succinct text gets right to the heart of the matter with nary a wasted word. A perfect combination of illustrator and writer and subject.

The Midnight Fair, illustrated by Mariachiara Di Giorgio, written by Gideon Sterer, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536211153.

On the more fantastical side, this exquisitely rendered wordless wonder imagines a temporarily human-free world that gives a bunch of woodland creatures a chance to engage in some rollicking fun. Sterer’s clever story provides the narrative blueprint for this absorbing tale of animals stumbling upon a fair with rides and games and lots of treats. After the fair closes for the evening and the humans head home, the critters do what all bears, bunnies, deer, foxes (and others) do: they go wild with fair fever. I love that they pay with acorns. Di Giorgio’s cinematic art (watercolor, gouache, colored pencil) astounds throughout. She serves up many jubilant images, many of them on double page spreads, of the animals having a blast. The moments showing them on the rides (overhead shots, a hazy view from the side) are pure brilliance. This is art that could be framed and put up on the wall.

Picture books of the day: beautiful empathy in three new books

On this blog, I love bringing books that at first glance seem unrelated together thematically. Take the three books here. They all celebrate empathy and do so by reminding readers to thinking about the world in a whole new way.

Milo Imagines the World, illustrated by Christian Robinson, illustrated by Matt de la Peña, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN: 978-0399549083.

Some years back, Robinson and de la Peña took the picture book world by storm with Last Stop on Market Street, a tender look at a boy and his grandmother and a quietly eventful bus ride. It won a surprise Newbery Award (surprising because picture books don’t usually receive Newbery attention). I like that book, but I have to say: I love Milo Imagines the World even more. This book truly enters the head and shares the mindset of its introspective artist hero. To pass time on a long subway ride, Milo looks at the passengers and tries to imagine what their lives are like. And he draws pictures that reflect his assumptions–some comical, some more downbeat. Soon he realizes though that first impressions can be wrong and wonders what people think when they look at him. I reviewed the audio for this title for a magazine (publication pending) and first listened to it without looking at the illustrations. And wow, de la Peña’s writing is great here: vivid, tender, atmospheric. You feel as if you are on the train with Milo. But then I listened to it again while looking at Robinson’s always inventive art (collage, acrylic paint, and “digital manipulation”) and wow do the illustrations ever soar. I love how he uses a different child-like approach with Milo’s drawings. The book also ends with a poignant and powerful final image that packs an emotional punch.

Over the Shop, illustrated by Qin Leng, written by JonArno Lawson, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536201475.

Sometimes books with a message hammer that message home. Not Over the Shop. In fact, if you skip past the author’s dedication, you may not realize what exactly is happening, why the bigoted elder character behaves the way they do. Over the Shop is a gentle, quiet, wordless slice of life story that feels like one of those great animated shorts that ends up with an Oscar nomination. Artistic, lovingly detailed, possessing a big heart. The story revolves around a child who lives with an older relative who runs a little shop. The family tries renting out a rather run-down apartment above the shop. Many potential residents examine the space, only to quickly reject it. However, when an interested couple arrives, the older character responds in a surprisingly hurtful manner and the child intervenes. Soon the couple becomes an essential part of their lives and the community. Qin Leng’s lovely art adds humanity and soothing tenderness to Lawson’s hopeful story.

Ten Little Dumplings, illustrated by Cindy Wume, written by Larissa Fan, published by Tundra (an imprint of Penguin Random House), ISBN: 978-0735266193.

This story whisks readers to the village of Fengfu, to the top of the hill, to a very large house where there lives a family considered very lucky…because they have not 1, not 2, not 3, but 10 sons. Fan’s rollicking story chronicles the boys’ many achievements and how the townspeople are there to ooh and aah over every milestone, every race won, well, everything. But wait…in the background, do we see another character? A quiet presence who might be just as impressive? I love books that surprise me, and Fan does a fabulous job with the idea that sometimes people in the background deserve to shine just as bright as those deemed legendary. If not more so. Wume’s rambunctious illustrations (rendered in ink, gouache and colored pencil) beg to be explored thanks to the comical details, but also because we start seeing the quiet character in every scene. Yes, the flashy boys command attention. But who is that we are glimpsing? What’s refreshing about the book is Fan does not make out anyone to be a horrible villain (the boys are lively without being brats). It simply reminds readers that everyone is worth noticing and has something to offer.

Picture book of the day: falling for the great, tricky Mel Fell

Mel Fell, illustrated and written by Corey R. Tabor, published by Balzer + Bray (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062878014.

The first thing you notice is that you have to hold the book horizontally, perfect for a gem about a baby kingfisher named Mel about to take flight for the first time but then plummeting through the air. And the second thing you notice is how instantly lovable and funny Mel Fell is. Award-winning illustrator/author Corey R. Tabor delivers a delightful, tricky, surprising, inventive (and dare I say it, even inspirational) romp that won me over the moment I first read it, and feels magical every time I revisit it. Tabor serves up a clever surprise halfway through, not only in narrative terms, but in terms of book design. But no worries, this review will be spoiler-free in that regard. I cannot wait to read this in a storytime that includes The Very Impatient Caterpillar and Bear Came Along, two other recent comic delights that make listeners chuckle and say “whoa” at the same time.

As mentioned, Mel Fell stars a brave young bird ready, it seems, to take to the sky. However, Mel startles everyone by diving down, down, down past a tree. A bunch of hilarious supporting characters populate this tree, commenting on Mel’s descent, concerned about her fate. Squirrels, owls and owlets, ants, a spider trapping a fly, bees, even…a….snail. They try to save the seemingly doomed winged little one. Tabor’s text bounces with action-packed urgency. Comical comments from the spectators punctuate the action.

But what is truly striking about Mel Fell: the absolutely fabulous art. Tabor used pencil, colored pencil, and acrylic paint, and then assembled the illustrations digitally. Mel and her co-stars possess hilarious expressions and body language. I really really love the squirrels’ acrobatics. Mel emerges as a protagonist we all want to cheer the moment we first see her. That look of determination. And yet that seeming recklessness that makes readers want to shout “look out Mel!”. But there is a beauty to this art as well. Tabor adds impressive textures to his depiction of this woodland world. The book feels thoughtfully conceived; every image resonates. So yes, it’s funny, very funny, and made with absolute care. Mel Fell will easily make my best of the year list.

Picture books of the day: a trio of fun subversive books bring on the laughs…and gasps

I love me some comedy. I especially like humor that surprises me. Throw in some off-kilter sight gag or a throwaway line mumbled in the background and I’m in stitches. The best funny picture books not only offer a promising set-up but nail a side-splitting ending. These three books (not coming not out until later this year, but so funny I must write about them now) made me laugh a lot. And they also made me gasp…in a good way.

Chez Bob, illustrated and written by Bob Shea, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN:978-0316483117, to be released: August 24, 2021.

Throughout time there have been comical stories with carnivorous creatures desperately seeking their next furry or winged or scaly meal and going to preposterous lengths for their dinner. Keiko Kasza’s The Wolf’s Chicken Stew quickly comes to mind as a delectable example. Bob Shea’s gloriously strange and always surprising Chez Bob can be added to the Wacky Predator Storytime Menu. His books have made me giggle in the past, but this might now be my favorite Shea. He takes the goofy idea of a “lazy but hungry” reptile hoping to lure birds by opening a birdy-restaurant on his snout and runs with it. Bob (the reptile, not the author) dons a chef’s hat and puts a fancy table on his nose. He sprinkles yummy spices on the bird seed. His eatery becomes an instant sensation, attracting flocks of customers. Soon an entire bird city develops around Bob, complete with “an extensive public transportation system.” Page after page, Shea keeps building on this wacky concept, delivering laugh after laugh. Although Bob, with his sharp pointy teeth, may seem a bit fearsome at first, readers will enjoy watching Bob and the birds become unlikely buddies. The ending is sweet, but Shea still delivers some bite.

The Rock from the Sky, illustrated and written by Jon Klassen, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536215625, ARC reviewed, to be released: April 13, 2021.

I’m a big Buster Keaton fan. I love that deadpan comedian who keeps a straight face while doing some of the most outrageous stunts ever filmed. I’m not the first person to compare Klassen’s work to Keaton’s. Klassen’s animals make readers laugh by remaining absolutely stoic during the most bizarre situations. Only their eyes move or shift, growing wider or smaller. In the seemingly simple but increasingly ambitious The Rock from the Sky, Klassen brings the house down with a mere shift of the turtle’s pupil or by having his armadillo character squint. The spare dialogue between the characters becomes funnier as the book goes on, and it’s kind of hard to put a finger on just why. Most likely it’s because as the two main characters engage in spare Beckett-like disagreements about where they should stand, Klassen reveals that yes, there is a rock falling from the sky, possibly straight at them. We know something they don’t know–it’s like sci fi mixed with Hitchcock mixed with Keaton mixed with early Jim Jarmusch movies. And it’s all Klassen. Told in five chapters, and with rather gorgeous digital art and watercolors, the book takes some strange turns indeed. I don’t want to spoil the twists. Let’s just say Klassen delivers a punchline I did not see coming and I love that.

13 Ways to Eat a Fly, illustrated by David Clark, written by Sue Heavenrich, published by Charlesbridge, ISBN: 978-1580898904, to be released: February 16, 2021.

I don’t know how David Clark managed to make images of flies being nearly eaten (or successfully eaten) so absolutely hilarious, but wow, hats off. Heavenrich’s lively and informative non-fiction text works as a snappy springboard for the art. Together the words and images create a rollicking look at the various methods creatures use to trap these winged morsels. Frogs zap them with their tongues. Spiders wrap them in their webs. A Venus Flytrap liquifies them and some flies end up Zombie-fied. The facts zoom at the reader at a zippy pace. All the while, Clark’s googly-eyed insects, frogs, and birds dazzle with their comical expressions and fluid body movements. My favorite creatures might be the bats using high-pitched sounds to locate their prey. Clark shows the sound waves bouncing back from the fly’s body. Heavenrich also reminds readers that sometimes humans eat flies…sometimes accidentally, sometimes (grotesquely) on purpose. This little gem seems to be flying under the radar. Hopefully readers who like their non-fiction a little wacky and gross will discover it.