Picture book of the day: pondering the mysteries of A House That Once Was

A House That Once Was, illustrated by Lane Smith, written by Julie Fogliano, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626723145, ARC reviewed, to be released: May 1, 2018.

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. The children silently creep through the house, afraid perhaps of the unlikely chance that the homeowners will walk through the door or pop in from another room. Fogliano writes: “We’re whispering mostly/but not really speaking./We whisper though no one would mind if we didn’t./The someone who once was/is someone who isn’t./The someone who once was is gone.” Whoa! Wow! Mind blown. As I have said in previous blog entries, I look at a ginormous amount of picture books. This book feels like none other I have experienced. It has a haunting quality that gives me goosebumps.

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. Always playful, Smith includes images that make you quietly chuckle (a mouse emerging through a ripped up photograph of a man, peeking through a hole where the man’s face would be). When the kids dream up scenarios for the people who used to live in house, the story takes on a more whimsical tone, and Smith changes up the color palette and gives us brighter, more stylized spreads. This whimsy nicely counterbalances the story’s sadder, more melancholy undercurrents. The best shot shows the kids imagining the former residents walking through Lane Smithesque trees searching for a pair of house keys while Fogliano writes “Or what if they’re lost and wandering lonely?”/”Maybe they can’t find their set of house keys?” I cannot think of an image that is both so somberly funny and quietly devastating in a recent picture book. It does remind me of the final scenes in the great Akiko Miyakoshi’s 2017  The Way Home in the Night, in which a child rabbit thinks about another character’s possible nocturnal loneliness.

A House That Once Was had me thinking deep thoughts by its end. I started wondering about the people who used to live in the house in which I now live. I also wondered if in my old childhood home if there is someone wondering about me and the others who lived there over the years. It’s that kind of book. I cannot stop thinking about it.



Picture book of the day: the picture book as dream in Ocean Meets Sky

Ocean Meets Sky, created by The Fan Brothers, published by Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 978-1481470377, ARC copy reviewed (note on cover says Color and Text not final), publishing date: May 15, 2018.

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. Born in the States (so yes, they are Caldecott eligible) but residing in Canada, they have a distinct style that quietly dazzles the eye. In the recent The Antlered Ship (written by Dashka Slater), the Fans took a curious fox and an animal crew on a perilous nautical journey. The fox wanted answers to life’s big questions, and the book swept us along, making us sigh with wonder and worry about their safety. Ocean Meets Sky, which they wrote and illustrated, also takes the reader to the high seas, and the journey is also laced with philosophical longing, but this time the trek has a more tranquil, spiritual side to it. 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. I love his facial expressions as he builds, dreams, and then awakens (or has he?) and discovers that his little sailboat is cruising along the waves. Ah, how I adore those clouds shaped like an anchor, elephant, a whale, a pipe, others.

The surreal double page spreads that follow could be framed in a museum. The boy, suddenly feeling lonely, meets a great golden fish (that has a mustache similar to his grandfather’s) who comforts him by offering to guide him to his destiny. And wow, what sights we see along the way (observant readers will note that objects in these spreads appeared in grandfather’s study earlier–an owl, shells, books, so on). Library Islands with giant piles of adventure sea-related books, islands of giant shells, and other wonders. I love the wow-inducing overhead image of the boat gliding across the water with translucent moon jellies and the ginormous fish under the surface. In fact, one could say that each flip of the page introduces another wow-inducing moment. I don’t want to spoil where the journey takes the reader, but let me just say, the book has a real emotional impact. 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. Although I probably should have waited to review the final product, I simply couldn’t wait to share my thoughts about how gorgeous this book is.

Picture book of the day: Brendan Wenzel says Hello Hello to 92 animals in a most brilliant way

Hello Hello, illustrated and written by Brendan Wenzel, published by Chronicle Books, ISBN: 978-1452150147, ARC copy reviewed, book to be released on March 20, 2018.

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–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.

The look of Hello Hello will remind picture book fans of his great Caldecott Honor title They All Saw a Cat. Rendered with all kinds of media (cut paper, colored pencil, oil pastels, marker, computer), the illustrations have a playful, inventive feel as Wenzel and his designer present cool, intriguing ways to present the always intriguing compositions. The first spread shows a white cat facing a black cat while the words “Hello hello” appear on the right hand side. A flip of the page and we see the words “Black and White” and a black cat joining a black bear and then striped animals. One little black and white striped fish swims on to the next page, continuing a feel of connectivity. Suddenly with a flip of the page there is a burst of color. The black and white fish swims up to a blue fish who is hovering over a lizard’s blue tail. The lizard’s red head is looking up at the red head of a bird. The bird’s green wing matches the green of the coral a nearby seahorse is swimming through. And so on. Wenzel meanwhile keeps the language succinct and simple and yet evocative: “Hello Color/Hello Bright.” One animal moves to the next page and we see new patterns. Some animals are Giant (“Hello Giant”) and some are Not (“Hello Not”). Hello Hello is the kind of fabulous picture book that grows in power with each read through. He takes unexpected turns with the language (“Hello Tongue, Ears, Hands and Nose/Hello Pattern/Hello Pose”). The animals all have a texture–you feel as if you can touch the page and feel the scales, shells, and quills (“Hello Whoa!”). The book takes on a zen feel, inviting you to slow down and examine the images, and to think about the beauty of each animal on the page. It’s a masterful work that’s fun…but with a message.

Also, I must add that the backmatter is excellent. A visual key to the animals appears and we learn about the status of many of them.


Two illustrators change up their style with Grandma’s Purse and If I Had a Horse

Grandma’s Purse, illustrated and written by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Knopf, ISBN:978-1524714314.

If I Had a Horse, illustrated and written by Gianna Marino, Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626729087.

Two of the very best illustrators working today are Vanessa Brantley-Newton and Gianna Marino. And it’s a thrill watching them do something new with their sparkling just released works, Grandma’s Purse and If I Had a Horse. Both books seem so effortless as they create a warm, cozy mood, and yet as you examine the illustrations you discover that they are intricate, packed with striking details and memorable imagery.

Is there an artist who creates sweeter illustrations than Vanessa Brantley-Newton? I’m talking sweet without being overly cloying. She excels at humane drawings that show people connecting and bonding. Just look at My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay (written by Cari Best), Early Sunday Morning (by Denene Millner), or The Hula-Hoopin’ Queen (by Thelma Lynne Godin). In the delightful Grandma’s Purse, which she also wrote (she mostly illustrates works by others), a young girl, who also narrates the slice of life anecdote, asks her Grandma, aka “Mimi,” to show her the contents of her purse. Mimi lovingly cooperates, removing each object and explaining its importance. As a longtime fan of Brantley-Newton, I noticed something cool about the art in this book. It’s definitely very Brantley-Newtonesque, but she is changing up her style here. It’s a little looser, a little freer. Look at Mimi’s hair, which is like a bunch of scribbles. This gives the book a playful feel as Grandma discusses everything from the hairpins that hold her aforementioned hair together to the change purse her husband brought back from Japan ages ago. It all leads to a nice big surprise for the little girl, one that feels just right. Brantley-Newton creates pictures you can get lost in–the details on the green couch, that ginormous plant is slightly lopsided, the cute toys on the floor, and a cat smiling at us in most every frame. I doubt that there will be a more life-affirming family story out this year.

Gianna Marino is pretty much a chameleon as an illustrator. When you look at her comical cautionary tale Too Tall Houses, you notice that it’s very different from the melancholic whale bonding tale Following Papa’s Song or the slapsticky Night Animals. I love those books, and others by her, but I have to say If I Had a Horse may now be my favorite book by her. Done completely in silhouettes, the gentle book shows a girl dreaming of befriending a horse. We first see her holding out an apple to the creature. Each page turn shows him getting closer and closer to her. He munches on the apple, and she hugs him and then starts riding on him. Okay, this description might sound mundane, but yowsah, just look at the art. Those colors bring out all kinds of emotions, showing the horse and girl not agreeing in some spreads, but then reconciling. The spare text can be applied to any friendship with its ups and downs. What’s interesting about the book is its a story about conquering fears without being overly preachy. The shadows create moods, and the moods create images that stay in the memory long after you close the book.


Picture book of the day: Chris Raschka’s New Shoes gives the reader a you are there feeling

New Shoes, illustrated and written by Chris Raschka, Greenwillow Books, ISBN: 978-0062657527, Release Date: May 1, 2018.

I look at a LOT of picture books, and it amazes me how different artists find a new, unique way of telling a story or capturing a life event with their illustrations. In Chris Raschka’s latest New Shoes, the two time Caldecott winner takes what could have been a bland or routine account of a child (gender never specified) needing a new pair of shoes and then gives the situation a cool visual twist. We see everything from the child’s POV; we relate to the child because we become the child. The kid’s face is never shown; we look down at legs and feet. In some spreads we watch the first person narrator’s finger pointing at possible footwear choices. Raschka’s watercolors and gouache paint illustrations have that loose controlled chaos of his best work–he is in complete control of his imagery and yet things look slightly askew. The simple sentences jump off the page thanks to a large, clear font. This quite simply is a masterfully done “first experience” book for a young child, conveying the highs (those shoes look cool, I want to try them on!) and lows (ouch, but this pair squeezes my feet!) of trying on new shoes. And of course the excitement of showing them off to a good pal.


In Baby Monkey, Private Eye comic timing is everything

Baby Monkey, Private Eye, illustrated by Brian Selznick, story by Selznick and David Serlin, Scholastic, ISBN: 978-1338180619. Will be released February 27, 2018. Review of Advanced Reader’s copy.

What’s that old saying? “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” To master the art of comic timing requires a great deal of skill. Usually I review picture books on this blog, but I make exceptions for some titles that are longer or in the case of Baby Monkey, Private Eye break the rules. This absolutely hilarious romp works as a longish picture book, a longish easy reader book, and has graphic novel elements. Caldecott winner Brian Selznick loves shaking things up and he does just that with partner in crime, co-creator David Serlin. Divided into five fast-paced chapters, the book shows how the resilient and rather tiny baby monkey (his magnifying glass is taller than he) solves a bunch of lighthearted mysteries.

2018 has only just begun but I doubt that there will be a more dramatic build-up to an appearance of a character this year than when Selznick and Serlin introduce the titular character. We flip past the title page to see a giant “WAIT!” fill a double paged spread. Then a turn of the page: “Who Is Baby Monkey?” And then we turn the page with great urgency and Selznick rewards us with one of his superlative illustrations–no words, just the image of baby monkey looking at us, one eye ginormous through said magnifying glass. Turn the page. “He is a baby.” Page turn. “He is a monkey.” Flip the page. “He has a job.” And then the turn of the page gives us a film noirish shot of the window on Baby Monkey’s office door advertising “Baby Monkey Private Eye”. Turn the page, and and Selznick, always cinematic in his approach to art, pulls back to show us the diminutive monkey standing next to his office door. And then we get the table of contents.

The chapters for the most part follow a formula…well kind of, sort of. Selznick and Serlin keep changing things up, so just when you think they are going to follow a pattern, a twist happens, keeping young readers on their toes. In each chapter Monkey relaxes in his office when someone comes in to announce that they are the victim of a theft. Baby Monkey then goes through a routine of looking for clues, taking notes, and then most hilariously, tries to put on his pants. Then Monkey solves the crime and usually some animal is a culprit, and usually the animal is so large you wonder how Baby Monkey has successfully tied it up.

Throughout what delights is the comic timing. This book excels at page turns. A flip of the page reveals a punchline, or something absurd. You want to see what Selznick and Serlin are going to do next. And did I mention that it’s funny? The facial expressions (look at Baby Monkey concentrating as he holds a pencil scribbling notes) and body language and the absurdity of the situations all add to the hilarity. An extra plus is this comic masterpiece ends on a sweet reassuring note. Private eyes need mama’s hugs too. Oh yes and a huge round of applause for the tongue-in-cheek index and nonsensical bibliography.



Picture book of the day: philosophical musings of a curious child in They Say Blue

They Say Blue, illustrated and written by Jillian Tamaki, published by Abrams, ISBN: 978-1419728518, To be released March 13, 2018.

When I briefly met Jillian Tamaki at a graphic novel convention in Chicago in 2015,  I congratulated her on Caldecott Honor win for the great (and yes controversial although the Caldecott Award covers books for young readers up to age 14) graphic novel This One Summer, written by her sister Mariko Tamaki. She was very thankful but admitted that as a graphic novelist who creates work for older audiences that the children’s lit world was something new to her. I became concerned that she would not create books for kids. So I gave a loud cheer when I saw an advanced reader’s copy of They Say Blue and then my applause grew louder when I flipped through the book and discovered how absolutely gorgeous and thoughtful it 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. Some of the spreads take on a whimsical quality, especially the one that shows her in a boat trying to sail on a field of grass that looks like a golden ocean. Tamaki gives us a surreal moment when the child, stretching her fingers to the sky, becomes a tree. Throughout, Tamaki creates surprising moments like this. The book joins a growing list of other child-friendly works (like Antoinette Portis’ Now and the lovely Life, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel and written by Cynthia Rylant) that give thoughtful kids something to think about as they examine beautifully rendered art.