When’s My Birthday?, illustrated by Christian Robinson, written by Julie Fogliano, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626722934.
A co-worker of mine enthusiastically read this to me as soon as the book arrived, and what I noticed at first is the beat. Wow, Fogliano’s text bops along with great excitement, making you wish that your birthday could be every single day of the year. The glorious refrain: “when’s my birthday?/where’s my birthday?/how many days until/my birthday?” is wildly catchy, getting the ole heartbeat racing. And she doesn’t let up for a moment, we turn the page and we read “will my birthday be on tuesday?/will my birthday be tomorrow?/will my birthday be in winter?” and find our bodies dancing along with the bouncy words. All the while Christian Robinson’s adorably witty illustrations join in the fun, filling each spread with child-like wonder and warmth. A smiling butterfly wears a birthday hat, a girl unwraps a present that’s several times larger than her (love the string that’s part of the collage), a child climbs a ladder to point at the six candles on a ginormous birthday cake. You practically want to join in a conga line during the part when the narrator says “and you’re invited to my birthday/and she’s invited to my birthday/and he’s invited to my birthday/and you and you and you” (Robinson on this spread gives us a giraffe and a sloth with birthday hats, and a birthday hat on a goldfish bowl). The action only slows down for one hilarious moment as the narrator, anticipating the birthday that’s about to happen tomorrow, starts falling to sleep while speaking, resulting in them saying “blurfday” instead of “birthday” before the snoring begins. And then we’re up, wide awake again, and flip out because TODAY IS THE BIG DAY! Artfully done, with cool book design (credited to Kristie Radwilowicz), with dimensions that remind one of a birthday candle (without a wick of course), this is pure picture book goodness. LET’S PARTY!
Robinson, illustrated and written by Peter Sís, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-0545731669. Release date: September 26, 2017 (Advance Reader’s Copy reviewed).
According to the back matter, Peter Sís won a costume contest as a child after his artistically talented mother crafted him a nifty Robinson Crusoe outfit. And an old photo of him accompanies this personal anecdote. The costume is both a marvel and amusing. He admits that although his Crusoe threads look cool, they made him feel itchy and uncomfortable. And worse still, his classmates laughed at him. Later, when he became ill, he had a fever dream of going off solo to live on an island. The Caldecott Honor winning Sís uses this childhood story as a springboard for the visually arresting Robinson, done in his usual dynamic style, with large cinematic, often swirling spreads. He gives us a lot of overhead shots of the action. His use of borders (that offer more visual information) and graphic novel style frames are masterful. When the boy Peter feels humiliated at the costume party and retreats to bed, we enter his dream world. The drawings of the island in all its glory are thrilling, creating a vivid sense of place. He throws in moments of whimsy (a meal at a table with wild animals). But then loneliness sets in (the way it does for another boy who heads off to an imaginary island, Max in Where the Wild Things Are), and Peter wishes to see his friends again. They appear, apologize, and it all comes to a cheerful end, with the promise of new adventures for the reconciled pals. This beautifully rendered and personal book looks and feels like no other picture book this year. However, it would team up nicely with other recent and/or upcoming picture books set at sea: Mighty Moby, The Only Fish in the Sea, The Boy and the Whale, and The Antlered Ship.
The Boy and the Whale, illustrated and written by Mordicai Gerstein, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN 978-1626725058, release date: November 21, 2017 (review of the Advance Reader’s Edition).
When I briefly met Mordicai Gerstein, I told him “I’m happy that The Man Who Walked Between the Towers won the Caldecott, and he responded with a laugh, “So am I.” He said it with such a jovial tone and we both laughed. In Gerstein’s books you see an artist who loves using vibrant imagery to create thrilling children’s books, and his joy is captivating. The Boy and the Whale crackles with intensity as it tells the story of the young son of a financially strapped fisherman who sees a whale trapped in their only net. After plunging into the water, and looking at the still living whale in the eye, the emphatic boy remembers how he too was once caught in a net and almost drowned. Although his father instructs him not to do anything about the matter, the kid decides that he must try his best to save the struggling animal. The images in Gerstein’s book haunt the reader long as they close the page: the morning sun reflecting off the waves, the boy under water fighting to free the whale from the net, the lad bursting out of the water to BREATHE. There is a thrilling moment when, after a spread conveying silence after a good deed has been done, the whale explodes out of the water and spins in the air. The use of perspective is incredible in this spread; it’s a faraway shot showing the magnitude of the whale dwarfing the boy standing on the boat. Although we cannot see his face, we can tell from his body language (he bravely stands and watches the glorious sight) that he is awestruck. So are we. The Boy and the Whale then ends with a moment of hope between father and son. This is easily one of the very best coming of age picture books ever, and can be added to the long list of Gerstein’s very best works.
Professional Crocodile, illustrated by Mariachiara Di Giorgio, written by Giovanna Zoboli, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-1452165066. This hilarious nearly wordless picture book import from Italy has a twist ending so surprising I could not stop laughing. I will not spoil this surprise, but will attempt to describe what makes this delightful creation work. Presented in a graphic novel format and possessing longish dimensions perfect for a book about crocodiles, this title shows an anthropomorphized crocodile rising from bed in the morning and going through his daily ritual of picking a tie for work, enjoying a quick breakfast, and heading out for the commute. Di Giorgio’s humorous yet gorgeous art is packed with amusing details (for example, one funny sequence shows the crocodile sharing an awkward elevator ride with a shy stranger) as the protagonist makes his way across a crowded cityscape. He peeks in stores, gets soaked thanks to a careless driver driving through a curb-side puddle, and ends up smooshed on a packed subway train (adults will relate to this scenario). As he heads to his final destination, we feel as if we have walked a mile in his shoes. This is the kind of book that you can look at again and again and find new details to savor. It also emerges as a surprisingly indelible character study. Fans of Bernard Waber’s Lyle books will find another crocodile to cheer. Those who like funny books, wordless books, and/or picture books starring affable animal characters will love this book.
Creepy Pair of Underwear!, illustrated by Peter Brown, written by Aaron Reynolds, published by Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 978-1442402980.
Peter Brown received a well-deserved 2013 Caldecott Honor for his wildly imaginative illustrations for Creepy Carrots!, in which he paid tribute to the shadowy images found in old horror films and Twilight Zone episodes. He continues this dynamic approach in the absolutely terrific sequel Creepy Pair of Underwear!. I can happily report that the title more than lives up to its predecessor’s witty, silly greatness. Aaron Reynolds’ prose crackles with a delightful mock-intensity that begs the reader to read it in the most mock-scary deep voice they can muster. Again Brown tips his hat to old-fashioned black and white films as his illustrations emulate camera angles: POV shots over the characters or from behind, images surrounded by borders with rounded off corners. Jasper Rabbit has returned, seemingly settled after his run-in with the horrifying carrots that made his life terrifying in the first book. While shopping in a store he sees a “glorious” pair of creepy, comfy underwear that he must have NOW! The underwear is green, with a Frankenstein face on front (and they look bizarrely hilarious when Jasper wears them). Of course the underwear ends up making life absolutely scary for our hero: glowing in the dark, shockingly returning when Jasper tries to dispose of them, and so on. I can already imagine that is going to make a great audiobook. I don’t want to spoil the ending but all I can say is it leads to a resolution that satisfies and makes sense. Throw in a fun reference to the first book, and you have a sequel will delight Jasper Rabbit’s many fans.
This Beautiful Day, illustrated by Suzy Lee, written by Richard Jackson, published by Atheneum, ISBN: 978-1481441391. At my library I will be running a mock-Caldecott program and I have been looking for possible candidates for discussion. When I read This Beautiful Day the first time I perked up, saying to myself “here’s a contender.” Then I looked at Suzy Lee’s bio and alas, I forgot that she does not qualify for Caldecott recognition because she was not born in and does not live in the United States (she resides in South Korea). This wonderful book joins the Sydney Smith-illustrated Town Is by the Sea as one of the most distinguished Calde-notts of the year. Now that I have yelled “NOOOOOOO” and fought off the urge to write to the Caldecott powers-that-be urging them to bend some rules, I will attempt to do Suzy Lee’s work here justice.
This Beautiful Day tells the simple story of three kids stuck inside on a gray, rainy day. However, they don’t let the inclement weather bring them down. One of them switches on a radio, music plays, and they start to dance. The dancing leads to joyful stamping and stomping, first indoors and then outside where they march through puddles. Waving their umbrellas with joy, they become even more euphoric when the rain stops and the sun shines. Their umbrellas float away through the air, towards the tree, and the kids, joined by friends, start defying gravity. What is striking about the book is Lee’s use of color (her illustrations are rendered in pencil and acrylics and digitally manipulated). The first spreads only have shades of gray as we see the children moping (the backgrounds are spare). When the radio is turned on, we see a hint of blue. Then as the music spreads, more blue appears. After they go outside, more color fills the page, becoming more prominent as the sun returns. Lee’s figures are remarkably fluid and expressive; she excels at conveying body movement. All the while, Richard Jackson’s spare yet energetic text adds an extra layer of warmth to the title.
This Beautiful Day emerges as one of the most hopeful books of the year, showing kids rising above a sad situation and embracing joy and community and a sense of fun.
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.