Picture book of the day: the disorienting surprises of Mighty Moby

Mighty Moby, illustrated by Ed Young, written by Barbara DaCosta, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN:  978-0316299367

I’m going to be blunt:  Mighty Moby is one strange book (and I mean that as a compliment).  However, when you go through it a second and third and fourth time (and beyond), you start seeing that it follows the patterns of many other children’s picture books about toys, imagination, and bedtime.  What Ed Young, in full creative genius mode, and Barbara DaCosta, providing a text that cleverly reminds one of sea shanties, do here is take conventions and spin them into something wildly unexpected.  I don’t want to spoil the big surprise at the end of this book (but I’m guessing I probably gave some if it away).  All I can say is no other picture book this year has made me feel so wonderfully disoriented.  At first we think we are reading a pared down picture book version of the climactic moments of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick with Captain Ahab and his sailors battling the huge whale.  Young’s brilliant, abstract collages (he uses cut paper, photographs, string, and pastel) drop you in the middle of the action.  You have to turn the book vertically for some spreads.  One gasp-worthy page turn gives us a full view of the whale himself (“Shh!  There he is,” the captain whispered and you’re like whoa! being anything but quiet).  The magnitude of the animal is conveyed beautifully.  All the while DaCosta’s energetic prose captures the terror and awe of this showdown.  And then comes the surprise.  Again, it’s a surprise I have seen in several other books, but here the surprise feels so fresh and new as if it had never been done in any previous title.  The surprise is also a genre-flipper:  we think we have been reading an adventure story but instead, we have been reading something else entirely.  Just brilliant.

Picture book of the day: the joy of hearing an audience yell Boo! in perfect unison

Boo!, illustrated and written by Ben Newman, published by Flying Eye Books, ISBN:  978-1911171058.

Wow, what a triumph of book design this is.  With bold shapes and sharp colors and striking typography, Ben Newman’s Boo! is an artfully conceived romp in which, one by one, an animal brags about being the bravest creature there ever was.  As each character speaks highly of itself, another shadowy figure approaches from behind and then screams “BOO” when we turn the page.  I have done this book in story time and the children love guessing what kind of animal the shadowy figure will turn out to be.  And I tell them to shout BOO! on the count of three and they love doing that.  Each page turn offers a vibrant, hilarious surprise.  The reaction of each character after it is startled is priceless.  The beauty of the design starts on the cover with a mouse appearing under the two “O”s in the word BOO cut out in the shape of eyes.  Flip open the book and we see that the eyeballs belong to a crocodile about to chomp on the mouse.  When addressing the reader, each animal starts off with a greeting with an amplified, larger font, and in a nice touch, Newman changes the font for each character.  To say this works in large story times is an understatement:  the illustrations show beautifully across the room.  Kids laugh, scream, and adore the surprise ending.  It will forever be a part of my regular story hour rotation.

The Great Ones Volume 1: R. Gregory Christie–the illustrator as character actor

I am proud to introduce the first in a series of ongoing posts about contemporary children’s book illustrators I admire.  These humble capsules will try to zero in on one thing about what makes this artist a truly special creator of children’s books.  I cannot think of a cooler person to start with than R. Gregory Christie who has given the world over 50 acclaimed picture books over the past 20 or so years.  Christie has won 5 Coretta Scott Illustrator Honor awards (The Palm of My Heart, Only Passing Through, Brothers in Hope, The Book Itch and Freedom in Congo Square), a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (Bad News for Outlaws), a NAACP Image Award, is a three-time winner of the New York Times’ 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the Year (Only Passing Through, Stars in the Darkness, Freedom in Congo Square), a 2017 Caldecott Honor Award (Freedom in Congo Square), among other honors.  To top it all off, he’s one of the nicest people I have ever met.

Recently I had the chance to hear Mr. Christie speak on a panel and one of his comments really stayed with me.  He says that he views himself as a “character actor” style illustrator who bends his art to match the tone of each book.  I went back and looked at some of his work with this in mind and it really makes sense.  He is a brilliant interpreter of an author’s words, capturing the mood that the writer creates.  For a mind-blowing comparison just look at Bad News for Outlaws:  The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal (2009, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, published by Carolrhoda), Sugar Hill:  Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood (2014, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, published by Albert Whitman & Company), The Book Itch:  Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (2015, written by Nelson, published by Carolrhoda), and Freedom in Congo Square (2016, written by Weatherford, published by little bee).

Christie’s work in Freedom in Congo Square, about slaves who endure hard labor during the week and have only one afternoon of joy playing music in New Orleans’ Congo Square, calls to mind the power of great folk art.  We don’t see the features on the slaves’ faces.  Their bodies are bent at painful, difficult angles while working, but are then curved with graceful release when enjoying the music.  Meanwhile, in The Book Itch, about Lewis Henri Michaux and the creation of the National Memorial African Bookstore, Christie creates a real sense of place, making the reader feel as if they are a customer in the famous bookstore.  We see the expressions on the people’s faces, although some of the work is abstract.  Christie serves up beautiful portraits of such historical figures as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.  The Book Itch has a serious tone, especially when the people grieve after Malcolm X’s murder, and Christie’s work doesn’t shy away from this sadness.  What emerges, thanks also to Nelson’s evocative text, is an indelible study of how this book store changed lives.

Compare the serene art in The Book Itch to the bouncy spreads found in the almost giddy Sugar Hill.  Weatherford’s finger-snapping rhymes introduce the youngest of readers to the celebrated Harlem neighborhood where legendary figures as Thurgood Marshall and Lena Horne hung out while children played stickball on the street.  The warm wink on the book’s cover tells you “oh, this will be fun” and Christie’s pastel illustrations create a captivating warmth.  Meanwhile, on the cover for Bad News for Outlaws, a picture book biography about respected Old West lawman African-American Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, Reeves meets your eyes directly–looking dignified and very serious.  Nelson starts the account with a bang (quite literally) showing Reeves in action, and Christie gives us scenes straight out of a movie, with the reader at one point staring down the barrel of Reeves’ gun.  He excels at capturing the landscape and vistas of the Old West.  But mostly what impresses is how Christie depicts Bass’ brave, no-nonsense personality.

R. Gregory Christie is always trying something new in his work.  Although of course you can see similarities in how he depicts body movement and human figures, he flexes his style and this helps each title take on a distinct visual world all its own.

Story Time Success Story: Splatypus brings on the slapstick

Splatypus, illustrated by Jackie Urbanovic, written by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, published by Two Lions, ISBN:  978-1503939202.

As a kid who grew up on Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons, I do love me some slapstick.  Pulling off physical humor can be a daunting task, and I applaud any picture book that brings on the funny.  Illustrator Jackie Urbanovic has proven time and time again in her work (especially in Duck at the Door) that she has mastered the art of slapstick.  She excels at drawing wildly expressive characters with comically flexible bodies.  Match her art with the kind of rollicking text Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen provides in Splatypus  and you end up with a romp perfect for energetic interactive story times.  Of course, tucked in between the pratfalls, trips, and stumbles, as well as the audience participation ready sound effects, is a heartwarming tale about finding your place in the world.  There are even moments of melancholy and loneliness along the way as platypus struggles to emulate the movements of each character he meets (kangaroos, dingoes, possums, fruit bats).  Every attempt at hopping, running wildly, climbing a tree, or flying results in poor platypus crashing to the ground.  The word “SPLATYPUS” fills the page as our poor hero looks dazed.  Bardhan-Quallen’s bouncy, simple rhymes keep young readers engaged, wondering will platypus find happiness?  I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that the title wonderfully takes on a whole new meaning.  Sometimes being a splatypus rocks!

Picture book of the day: the gentle new sibling book I’m a Big Brother Now

I’m a Big Brother Now, illustrated by Sylvia L. Walker, written by Katura J. Hudson, published by Marimba Books (distributed by Just Us Books), ISBN:  978-1603490146.

One of the questions I often get at the children’s reference desk is for “big brother” or “big sister” new sibling books.  And then the person asking for titles will say “please, let me rephrase it–can you find me positive, honest, and/or reassuring books that don’t make the new addition seem like a complete bother?”  Yes, as much as I love subversive picture books that have characters mailing their new baby sister or brother to another locale (and possibly even outer space), it’s refreshing to discover such a loving, seemingly simple, emotionally direct book like I’m a Big Brother Now.  Sylvia L. Walker’s warm watercolors introduce young readers to a charming boy who cannot wait to take on his exciting new role as big brother.  This helpful, resourceful little guy helps even before the baby is born:  talking to his mommy’s tummy, painting the baby’s room, and making sure his mother’s bag is by the door when she has to quickly leave for the hospital.  Katura J. Hudson’s succinct, child-friendly first person text walks the audience through what to expect when the baby first arrives (lots of sleeping and dirty diapers–but the protagonist’s patient smiles show it’s not completely horrible).  I love how Hudson calls the new addition “the baby,” resisting gender specification and thus increasing the title’s universality (so many times I’m told by patrons “oh, my child has a new baby sister so books with baby brothers won’t work” or vice versa).  Although the book is snark-free, it doesn’t feel sappy or cloying.  The boy endures some minor disappointments (like needing to be quiet around the sleeping tot and not being able to engage in loud play).  But when the child says that it’s all good at the end, you believe him thanks to the tender beauty of Walker’s art and Hudson’s prose.  A beautiful little gem of a book, unassuming and universal.

Picture book of the day: the joy of everyday noises in Kate Alizadeh’s Quiet!

Quiet!, illustrated and written by Kate Alizadeh, published by Child’s Play (International), ISBN:  978-1846438875.  Once while I was on the library reference desk a patron asked for books about noises people hear in different rooms in a house.  I found some titles but wow, I wish Quiet! had been around at the time.  This charming, lovely book somehow makes everyday routines seem compelling and exciting, inviting young readers to join in on every eeeeek, pitter patter, swish, and bang.  This celebration of onomatopoeia begins on the opening pages, filled with sound effects.  The young preschooler at the center of the book delights as they walk us through their day (no gender specification, a beautiful touch), but first asking us “what’s that noise?”.  Each colorful double spread gives us a widescreen view of rooms buzzing with activity.  The child’s father, a bearded cool dude in a striped shirt and possessing a captivating laugh (hee hee hee ha ha ha), prepares a meal (dinner I presume) as the blender whizzes, a pot bubbles, the microwave pings, and the baby brother burps.  Young readers/listeners will love making these noises or hearing the storyteller imitate them.  We then follow the kid as they hear other noises throughout the house, entering various rooms where a computer whirrs, a dog snuffles, a wide-screen TV blah blah blahs, a faucet drips.  And so it goes.  Nothing monumental or earthshattering or life-changing happens in Quiet!, and yet despite its title, it is far from a serene book (it’s the exact opposite).  And that’s what makes it such a fun addition to the storytime shelf.  It invites kids (and adults) to cherish the everyday, and to tune into the various everyday noises that surround them on a daily basis.  Also, this effectively shows the love between a father (possibly single, possibly with a partner/spouse at work or traveling) and child.  Pleasantly noisy, this also works as a bedtime story, the coziness apparent on every lovingly rendered page.

Picture book of the day: the inventive hilarity of Dev Petty’s and Lauren Eldridge’s Claymates

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Claymates, illustrated and photographed by Lauren Eldridge, written by Dev Petty, published by Little, Brown & Company, ISBN:  978-0316303118.

Sometimes certain picture books boggle my mind, making me wonder “how did this come together?”  For example, what did Dev Petty’s manuscript for the clever and inventive Claymates look like when it arrived in the able hands of Lauren Eldridge?  How many visual cues did Petty give Eldridge?  Usually authors and illustrators don’t really meet with or talk to each other, but this work feels as if two talented minds got together and shared the same unified vision.  I know, I know…I can probably do a search and find a making of Claymates article, but on another level:  I want the mystery of this collaboration to remain a mystery.

Claymates is one delightfully strange book that celebrates creativity, taking chances, breaking the rules not only when it comes to art, but also when it comes to self-identity.  Two balls on clay (one gray, the other brown, both with googly eyes) sit on a desk in a photographer’s (Eldridge’s I assume) studio.  On the title page the gray blob of clay gives a smirking naughty sideways glance to the startled-looking brown blob who turns out to be a newbie in this creative space.  I don’t know how Eldridge makes these characters so expressive in her photographs, but wow, each glance is extremely amusing.  Just watch the gray one look pensive when the brown one asks “What do you think is going to happen?” and then giddy when it replies “Probably something wonderful.”  Suddenly human hands appear, and they shape the clay balls into a gray wolf and a brown owl.  After this interfering human leaves, the book explodes with zany comical energy as the gray character becomes rebellious, trying to convince its peer to join in some shape-changing mischief.  And yowsah, do they ever transform themselves… into elephants, peanuts, an alien peanut, a dinosaur so large it cannot fit into the frame.  Meanwhile, Petty’s amusing dialog appears on what looks like torn off pieces of post-it labels.

I look at a LOT of picture books.  I admire books that feel and look like no other, and Claymates emerges as it’s own unique self.  Funny, the work it reminds me of most is the classic Daffy Duck cartoon “Duck Amuck.”    The photography is crisp and clear (I love the blurs when they change shapes); the dialogue clever and lively; and the resolution perfect (the brown clay is hooked on creative rebellion–hurray!!!).