Picture books of the day: bringing on the funny in some delightful new humor titles

The Most Haunted House in America, illustrated by Lee Gatlin, written by Jarrett Dapier, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 978-1419752469.

In the backmatter for this whimsical and rollicking romp, author Dapier (Mr. Watson’s Chickens, Jazz for Lunch) tells how in 2009 First Lady Michelle Obama invited him and two other drummer pals to the White House to perform at a Halloween celebration. With witty rhyming text, he takes this memorable experience and then lets his imagination fly, riffing on the idea that many consider the White House one haunted place. Children arrive to hear the musicians, presented as a jamming skeleton crew, and all seems well. However, after the trick or treating is through, the bony rockers encounter all kinds of ghastly sights inside various White House rooms. Ghosts float through the air and all kinds of creatures dance at the Terror Ball. Illustrator Gatlin seems to be having a blast conjuring up these delightfully morbid scenarios. The images (playfully) startle…in a friendly manner that feels more cozy than nightmare-inducing. This title adds some history and comical spice to Halloween storytimes.

Owl and Penguin, illustrated and written by Vikram Madan, published by Holiday House, ISBN: 978-0823451500, to be released: September 27, 2022.

Madan created one of the best poetry collections I have ever read: the deliriously inventive A Hatful of Dragons. He proves to be just as gifted when creating easy readers with the rather adorable Owl and Penguin. Levelled readers probably seem easy to write. Quick little chapters with deceptively simple story arcs. But wow, to illustrate and write an engaging title designed to reinforce skills for the most beginning of readers takes genuine skills. Madan serves up a trio of anecdotes starring these instantly lovable feathered friends. One involves ice cream, another helping penguin to fly, and the last the perils of splashing in the rain. Each account offers little twists and surprises that delight, and all stick their comical landings. What I love about this book is the way Madan uses emojis and punctuation marks instead of words when the birds converse. And he excels with body language and facial expressions. The reader can tell what the characters feel at all times. It’s an absolute delight.

Rafa Counts on Papá, illustrated and written by Joe Cepeda, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316540896.

In a way story might strike readers as more sweet than laugh out loud funny, but wow, award winner Cepeda’s latest makes is one clever STEM-friendly smile-inducer. His signature charming and colorful illustrations capture the bond between a father and child who love to count and measure things. How many branches in a tree. How high their pup Euclid can jump. The fluffiness of clouds. The text bounces along as he treats the reader to delightful images. One of the funniest shows a race with the father playfully trying to keep up with his zipping victorious child. The book takes a tender turn when little Rafa asks if they can measure love. Now Cepeda could have gone all saccharine here, but the book never feels cloying. Instead the illustrations keep on popping and the language keeps on bopping. Words such as “Is your love for me…As mighty as an ox…As steady as a Swiss watch…?” accompany a vibrant and amusing cinematic image of them playing catch. It all leads to a loving, reassuring ending that feels just right.

Picture book of the day: a Caldecott winner sings a beautiful Berry Song

Berry Song, illustrated and written by Michaela Goade, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316494175.

Some illustrators possess a unique style that instantly becomes recognizable. You see the cover of a book and say, “yes, I know that artist! And yes, I’m excited that this artist has a new book!” With her breathtaking watercolors that swirl and float across the page, the fabulous Michaela Goade is one such illustrator. Just look at her unforgettable Caldecott Award winning work in We Are Water Protectors (written by Carole Lindstrom) to the captivating images she created for the hauntingly beautiful I Sang You Down from the Stars (authored by Tasha Spillett-Sumner). Her latest, the touching Berry Song (her authorial debut), with its mesmerizing paintings that show a Tlingit grandmother and child gathering gifts from the natural world, has Goade serving up what she does best. Immersive, inventive colorful images (sometimes abstract) please the eye.

The book is a multi-sensory experience. As the characters travel by boat and then hike across a gorgeous Alaskan landscape, we readers can hear the rushing water, taste the juicy berries, touch the mist-covered leaves, and smell the sweet cedar. Most of all, we can hear the berries singing and the exchange between the grandmother and first person child narrator (“We speak to the land” and “As the land speaks to us.”)

Goade’s evocative, thoughtful text is filled with heart and tenderness. The lists of berries have a bouncy beat that will work beautifully in storytimes. And she offers a beautiful ending that has the child teaching a younger sibling the ways of their grandmother, and their ancestors. The song continues. The song will be passed on. Traditions will thrive. And wow, that backmatter. A big yes to the backmatter. Berry Song is another triumph for a gifted picture book creator with a style and grace all her own.

Dogs shine in 2 funny books plus a beautiful doggy farewell

Puppy Bus, illustrated and written by Drew Brockington, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 978-1419751912.

Ah, I love a good funny book. And I love a good dog book. Put pooches in a book that makes me guffaw and I’m in heaven. In the delightfully silly Puppy Bus, Brockington delivers both. A tale that celebrates everything canine while serving up plenty of terrific absurd surprises that tickle the reader’s funny bone. The playful illustrator/author riffs on the whole first day in a new school plot and lets the comical ideas fly. It’s a book that begs to be read in the most understated deadpan manner ever. A boy new in town nervously heads to school on a bus. Much to his shock, he discovers that he is heading to a dog obedience school (why the smiling bus driver doesn’t speak up remains a rather hilarious mystery). Once at this fine doggy educational establishment, the child encounters strange classes and an even stranger bathroom situation. After a bunch of dogs comfort him, the kid learns to love Puppy School! This bright, cheerful romp emerges as one of the year’s funnier books (it’s up there with Your Birthday Was the Best!), one with a surprise ending that will please young storytime crowds.

Every Dog in the Neighborhood, illustrated by Matthew Cordell, written by Philip C. Stead, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823444274.

A young child becomes a de facto doggy census taker in this sweet neighborhood story that also touches on activism and being an effective community organizer (like the resilient Grandma co-starring in the book). We happily meet the grandmother has taken up a cause, typing up letters with captivating intensity. Meanwhile, her young grandson Louis (with long hair covering his eyes) goes door to door asking neighbors if they have any dogs. Stead keeps the page turns coming with this energetic plot, and happily gives the dogs amusing names such as Oboe, Junebug, Thelonious and Monk. Caldecott winner Cordell has a ball bringing these lively, colorful streets to life. He has the talent to make everything seem so effortless. Yet upon further investigation, the reader notices how Cordell’s squiggly lines and vibrant colors capture characters in motion, with sound effect words popping up on the page with controlled chaos. He gives each dog a distinct look and character, and he knows where to place the reader. Up close. Far away. It all plays like an award-winning animated film.

Air Miles, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, written by John Burningham and Bill Salaman, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536223347.

And now for something moving and bittersweet. The legendary illustrator/author John Burningham passed away in 2019, leaving behind an impressive number of wonderful picture books. Air Miles works as a tender goodbye, a gentle farewell. Mostly to the dog character Miles, who appeared in the engaging Motor Miles (2016). At first the story seems engagingly silly, but with some melancholy undertones. The adventurous Miles likes to fly airplanes. Yes, Miles is a poochy pilot. But the humans in Miles’ life notice that their beloved pet has started to tire easily. And soon it becomes apparent that the time has come to say goodbye. Salaman, Burningham’s friend, helped finish this story which Burningham shared with him before he died. Burningham’s wife Helen Oxenbury, also a picture book legend, contributes warm, evocative illustrations. As Miles flies off into the distance and keeps flying and flying and flying, we realize that not only are we bidding farewell to Miles, but to Burningham as well. So children will read it on one level. Those adults who have enjoyed Burningham’s work over the years another. It’s a beautiful book.

Quick takes: five more new terrific picture books

2022 has been packed with some great new picture books. Here are five more!

Frances in the Country, illustrated by Sean Qualls, written by Liz Garton Scanlon, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823443321.

There have been several books this year that have celebrated the joys of being outside, enjoying your natural surroundings (like emile and the field). And some have been about characters who live in the city needing a break from the noise and crowds (such as Hot Dog). Written with zest by Scanlon, this storytime-friendly tale introduces a girl who loves visiting her relatives in the country. And for many reasons. Qualls’ warm illustrations create a real sense of time and place here, evoking both the crowded chaos of the city and glorious wide open rural spaces. All the while the image of Frances’ mom missing her while she’s away adds a tender melancholy layer to the account.

How Old Is Mr. Tortoise?, illustrated by Ruth Chan, written by Dev Petty, published by ABRAMS Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1419746703.

Two fabulous comedic talents team up for this math-fueled birthday romp that has characters guessing the age of the elderly yet undeniably youthful Mr. Tortoise. Packed with cartoon panels and speech bubbles, this will appeal to budding graphic novel fans. The dialogue zings and zips and Petty demonstrates how to pull off a page turn. Chan’s delightful characters are a joy to behold with their wide googly eyes and expressive faces. Storytellers who love to try out different silly voices will adore playing these very dramatic (in a funny way) creatures. There’s a counting lesson tucked in here too that, oh dear excuse the pun, adds to the fun.

Luli and the Language of Tea, illustrated by Hyewon Yum, written by Andrea Wang, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823446148.

Wang, who recently received a Newbery Honor for her personal Watercress, serves up a lovely and humane story about a new girl in class. No one speaks her native language of Chinese. In fact every student speaks a different language. What will bring them together? Tea! In a satisfying manner, Wang shows how each child has a different word for tea. And the story shows how people from different backgrounds can connect and bond over something universal. Yum’s delicate illustrations charm and invite young readers into the story. Wang’s text begs to be read aloud, and she also packs the book with excellent back matter. A delight.

Poopsie Gets Lost, illustrated and written by Hannah E. Harrison, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0593324172.

Don’t let that sweet cover fool you. Poopsie Gets Lost is actually a rather sinister action-packed thriller in which a narrator coaxes a pampered fluffy kitten to leave home and embark on an excursion. Except this little trip outside turns out to be, oh, terrifying. Poopsie encounters creatures who slither, snap and chase. All the while Harrison manages to keep things light and absurdly funny. The reader knows that the wide-eyed Poopsie will outrun and outwit not only the creatures but the gleefully antagonistic narrator (you, the reader). This emerges as fun meta fiction at its finest.

See You Someday Soon, illustrated by Suzy Lee, written by Pat Zietlow Miller, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1250221100.

During these pandemic times, a lot of relatives have found themselves separated for longer periods of time than expected. But now, thankfully, long overdue reunions are happening. Or will happen soon. But sometimes the wait can be hard. Miller’s playful yet empathy-driven story shows a child communicating via computer or through snail mail with an older relative, all the while wishing they could see each other IRL. Lee’s clever illustrations and the book’s striking art direction raise the book to an even higher level of impressiveness. The title plays with peek-a-boo tie cuts, trim size, and perspective, offering an experience that’s a visual treat in addition to feeling emotionally satisfying.