Picture books of the day: ah, sweet anarchy! Five new books serve up mischief and/or rebellious behavior

Explorers, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, published by Feiwel and Friends, ISBN: 978-1250174963, ARC reviewed, to be released: September 24, 2019.

Fly!, illustrated and written by Mark Teague, published by Beach Lane Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), ISBN: 978-1534451285, review copy reviewed, to be released: September 17, 2019.

Mr. Nogginbody Gets a Hammer, illustrated and written by David Shannon, published by Norton Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1324003441, to be published: September 3, 2019.

Pokko and the Drum, illustrated and written by Matthew Forsythe, published by Simon & Schuster (A Paula Wiseman Book), ISBN: 978-1481480399, to be released: October 1, 2019.

Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies!, created by Megan and Jorge Lacera, published by Children’s Book Press (an imprint of Lee & Low Books), ISBN: 978-1620147948.

A drum-playing frog who inspires a wild musical rumpus. A zombie who worries his parents because he prefers grains, not brains. A rather bratty boy causing a scene in a museum with a magical toy. A bird trying to convince a parent that any other mode of transportation (hang gliding, pogo stick, etc.) would be better than flapping those wings. And most bizarrely, a round figure with a face for a torso discovering the joys of smashing things with a hammer…as one does.

These characters may not seem to have a lot in common. And yet, this demented quintet causes a ruckus with behavior that’s anti-social and/or with an attitude that defies social norms. These are all characters who would happily call Max from Where the Wild Things Are a friend or at least a fellow rebel. And their antics are all giddily entertaining, bringing layers of subversive fun to books that either celebrate or depict wildness. Three of the five characters learn lessons by the end (to respect others in a shared space such as a museum, to listen to mommy/daddy bird, to not smash everything with a bleeping hammer). In two of the books, the parental units learn to chill (accept your zombie child’s dietary habits, let your frog bang that drum with complete froggy punk abandon). Some kind of order is restored (except, arguably in Pokko’s world, where the party most likely will never end–but this party is a good thing that unites everyone…well, except for a poor unfortunate rabbit. RIP trumpet playing bunny.).

The art in all five books beautifully captures movement. And each creator tells their story with expert comic timing and visual wit.

With Explorers, Matthew Cordell serves up his first near-wordless book since his great 2018 Caldecott winner Wolf in the Snow. He deftly employs his “fluid pen and ink with watercolors” technique when showing the boy’s antics in a museum. He does not give the reader a sickly sweet excursion with a happy happy joy joy family (a mother, father, son, and daughter) experiencing total togetherness while they walk through the building’s many rooms. No, he isn’t afraid to make the central character, the boy, a bit of a stinker who tosses around a mysterious bird-like toy (bought from a street vendor possessing a sign that says “Magic”) from room to room. This clueless imp shows anger at anyone who dares touch it (the mortified parents must apologize for him). Cordell gives readers great aerial shots of the action, pulling us back to capture the boy’s frantic trek. He then effectively throws in close-ups of a child’s hand catching the toy–first the boy’s, but later, the hands of other characters. The boy does learn a lesson by the end, and after much drama and more embarrassed apologies, the family becomes friends with another family. This reassuring ending brings a satisfying close to the action. And that mysterious street vendor? Oooh, who is he and where did he come from? And I dig the Abbey Road reference.

Mark Teague’s Fly! has instantly become one of my favorite wordless books of all time. Well, okay, if you’re a bird, this book probably isn’t wordless. The baby bird and the parent do speak to each other in their own language. In each speech bubble, Teague puts in one of his masterful acrylic paintings illustrating what the characters are saying. The book depicts a charming, visually witty, and hilarious give and take between a stubborn child and an increasingly frustrated parent who feels the time has come for the little one to get out of that nest and fledge already. After the little one falls to the ground, the conversation becomes funnier and funnier. The parent speaks of the glory of other birds flying. The baby responds with an image of a glorious hot air balloon. The parent’s next speech bubble shows a line crossed through that hot air balloon. The baby responds with an expressed desire to hang glide. And so on. Teague has always been a master at body language and facial expressions (his illustrations for Cynthia Rylant’s underrated story time must have The Great Gracie Chase demonstrate this), and here he perhaps surpasses himself. Just look at those birds’ faces. The book keeps surprising the reader right up to its final moments.

Did I dream David Shannon’s Mr. Nogginbody Gets a Hammer? Seriously, this is one of the weirdest books I have seen in a long time. And I adore its weirdness, the giddy slapstick dream world it creates. The plot basically concerns the titular character (love the bowler hat and tie) encountering a nail, smarting, buying a hammer, learning how to use it, and then bashing everything (flowers, chess pieces, etc.) with it. Fans of comical picture books know that Shannon is one of the very best; he knows how an effectively placed page turn can punch up a punchline. Here he is at the heights of his powers. The book begs to be read with a British accent. Any lessons learned? Yes, Mr. Nogginbody discovers that nurturing a living thing can be more satisfying than smashing. Phew, we’re all safe now.

The froggy star of Matthew Forsythe’s irresistible Pokko and the Drum is basically a good frog who tries her best listening to her parents, but hey, when your drumming gets the party started, you can’t stop the beat. Look at how Forsythe skillfully sets up the comical scenario by detailing how the parents have a history of giving Pokko presents that don’t seem to quite work out: a slingshot and a llama (I’m loving these page turns), among others. The drum turns out to be the worst idea because she cannot stop playing it loudly, and the parents fear the noise will call attention to their humble little mushroom home. After they send her outside to play, they ask her to be quiet, but of course she cannot resist tapping her drum gently. Suddenly a raccoon playing a banjo joins in, and then a rabbit playing a trumpet pops up, and Pokko starts drumming louder. There’s one unfortunate moment of carnage involving a wolf munching on the aforementioned rabbit (oooh, nice subversive moment there Mr. Forsythe), but after a heartfelt apology, the party continues, and the band of music-playing animals grows and grows and grows until it crashes into Pokko’s home. Instead of yelling at their daughter, the parental units agree that hey, this chaos isn’t bad at all, and Pokko rules on the drums, so party on Pokko. The book looks and feels like a rediscovered lost classic thanks to Forsythe’s watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil illustrations. I cannot wait to do this in storytime.

The parents in Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies! also learn to accept their child’s ways although they find their son’s choice of cuisine (vegetables…ewwww!) horrifyingly disgusting. The zombie child must speak up for himself, and the brain-eating parents need to learn acceptance. Creators Megan Lacera and Jorge Lacera serve up a bouncy text that delivers several hilarious zombie-related puns. For example, the main character’s name, Mo Romero, is a tip of a hat to famed zombie film director George A. Romero. There’s also a quick homage to Eating Animals writer Jonathan Safron Foer (called Jonathan Safron GORE). What I love about this book is how fearless the Laceras are: they don’t hold back with the startling imagery. Yes, the cartoonish illustrations keep things from being too scary. Finger foods are, yes, actual severed fingers. And yes, we see brains prepared for consumption. But in this hilarious world, Mo’s vegetable dishes are just as grotesque…it’s all in the eye of the beholder. When the parents try Mo’s gazpacho soup (Mo thinks the bloody look of the dish will make it seem more desirable), they not only spit it out, dad’s eyes pop out of their sockets and mom’s head falls off. Kids with a twisted sense of humor (and there are a lot of them) will love how the Laceras deliver a message of acceptance with such morbid grace.


Picture books of the day: 3 new titles demonstrate how to make a great non-fiction picture book sing

A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, written by Barry Wittenstein, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ARC reviewed, ISBN: 978-0823443314, to be released: September 24, 2019.

Rise!: From Caged Bird to the Poet of the People, illustrated by Tonya Engel, written by Bethany Hegedus (with a foreword by Colin Johnson), published by Lee & Low Books Inc., ARC reviewed, ISBN: 978-1620145876.

What Miss Mitchell Saw, illustrated by Diana Sudyka, written by Hayley Barrett, published by Beach Lane Books, . review copy reviewed, ISBN: 978-1481487597, to be released: September 3, 2019.

I can only imagine the time it takes to create a excellent non-fiction picture book for young readers. The writers spend hours on research, but then strip things down to create a concise yet dynamic reading experience for the child. Every word matters. As does the truth. The illustrators also have to immerse themselves into the lives and times of their subjects–study photographs or paintings, read accounts of what things looked like when the depicted details unfolded. When creating a picture book biography, the author and illustrator must capture their subject’s spirit and outlook.

This extraordinary trio does that and more. All three books contain prose passages that sing, and breathtaking illustrations that mesmerize. And thanks to the considerable talents involved, readers walk away with a deeper understanding of the books’ respective subjects (Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, and 19th astronomer Maria Mitchell).

Rise! sweeps readers through Angelou’s turbulent life, handling sensitive topics (the abuse she suffered) with sensitive grace. Author Bethany Hegedus skillfully covers a lot of ground, offering readers a thorough yet easily understood look at how she went from being a quiet, grieving child to a confident person who had many jobs, lived many places, and became an entertainer and accomplished, groundbreaking author. A book about a great writer such as Angelou better have strong prose, and Hegedus rises to the occasion with such passages as “The sights, sounds, and smells of San Francisco delight Maya. She floats through the fog, a cocoon of creativity that blankets the city.” Meanwhile, illustrator Tonya Engel creates stunning art that follows Angelou every step of the way. Just look at those radiant compositions (rendered in acrylic underpainting and oils on textured mono-printed papers) packed with often surreal imagery (love how the tall and dignified Momma Henderson has the body of a Sycamore tree to establish her strength). The art in this book is simply transcendent–with an image of Maya flying above her surroundings one of the most powerful of the year.

Author Hayley Barrett also takes an epic approach when writing What Miss Mitchell Saw, starting with Maria Mitchell’s childhood and then chronicling her life experiences through adulthood. Barrett serves up lively prose that gives readers an immersive experience (when talking of Maria exploring the island of Nantucket: “She rambled its gull-dappled dunes. She breathed the fragrance of its wild roses. She listened to the creak of whaleships…”). A total picture of Maria’s young life is created. Diana Sudyka’s warm, intricate illustrations, created with gouache watercolor and ink, are hypnotic throughout. They become especially cosmic when Sudyka gives readers surreal, shadowy views of starry night-time skies. Words swirl through the air as Maria as she sweeps the sky and becomes friends with the stars. We see her, her cat, and her telescope in silhouette, marvel at meteors and the Aurora Borealis. And at a comet that becomes the main focus of the book’s final section. It’s a thrilling match between text and brilliant imagery.

A Place to Land does not cover all of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, but zeroes in one significant, unforgettable event: the night he sat down and wrote the unforgettable speech he gave to the crowd attending the 1963 March on Washington. The book takes on an epic scope as King meets with friends and trusted advisors and confidants “in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, where Abraham Lincoln once stood.” Notable figures such as Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, and others offer guidance and advice, and Martin listens, and then shapes what will become a historic speech. Author Barry Wittenstein brings a real energy and drive to his descriptions of this meeting, and then to the amazing morning that followed. He makes readers feel like they have been transported back in time. The legendary illustrator Jerry Pinkney creates gorgeous, heart-stirring work here. His evocative oil paintings catch the expressions of a wide variety of people in the crowd. His use of collage and hand lettering add experimental touches that surprise from spread to spread. I fortunately had the opportunity here Pinkney speak and he said he’s been creating picture books for children since 1964. The art in A Place to Land feels joyous and youthful, packed with genuine care and love. For its subject. And for creating art that inspires and engages.


Picture books of the day: wild encounters in Camp Tiger and Little Doctor & the Fearless Beast

Camp Tiger, illustrated by John Rocco, written by Susan Choi, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN: 978-0399173295.

Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast, illustrated and written by Sophie Gilmore, published by Owlkids Books, ISBN: 978-1771473446.

As I have said on this blog in previous posts, I like to find the similarities in picture books that are seemingly very different. The metaphorical Camp Tiger and the ecological-minded Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast may not appear to have much in common at first other than the fact they both show a young protagonist interacting with a large wild creature. And yet both titles have a dream logic to them. They both have serious messages bubbling under their surreal surfaces. They both deal with overcoming fears. And on an artistic level, they both offer evocative writing and illustrations packed with unforgettable moments.

Camp Tiger certainly beats to the sound of its own drummer in a most memorable manner. Adult novelist Susan Choi, making her impressive kidlit debut, introduces a young boy anxious about entering the first grade. It’s the end of summer vacation, and he and his parents and brother head to a large park in an undisclosed location. Things become odd when a tiger appears. The humans don’t seem to bat an eyelash when the tiger starts speaking to them, asking to share a tent with the kid because its cave is too cold. Choi provides details that create a rather off-kilter mood: no other campers appear, and neither does a park ranger. Is the tiger the boy’s imaginary friend, and is the child’s family simply humoring him? Is the tiger a manifestation of the child’s anxiety about all the changes in his life? Or are we to take everything literally? That in this world Choi has created, a tiger can befriend the boy, help him deal with some big changes, and accompany him on wild rumpuses that involve roaring at the moon. The book teases the brain. Along the way Caldecott Honor winner John Rocco serves up memorable image after memorable image with his illustrations (created using a watercolor sketch and wash pencil and digitally added colors). So many shots of the realistically rendered tiger and the expressive child become unforgettable: the tiger underwater, an overhead shot of boy and beast in a boat with the stars reflecting in the water (reminded me of the novel, and film version of, Life of Pi), the kid cuddled up with his furry pal. Several picture books this year have ended on enigmatic notes, or tried to be all mysterious and strange. Camp Tiger definitely ranks with the more successful attempts at mind-bending allegory.

Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast also has a dreamy quality to it, and drops the reader into its world with little explanation. And yet illustrator/writer Sophie Gilmore delivers her story with such confidence and skill we happily go along with her outlandish yet compelling vision of a young girl doctor who lives in the jungle and cures giant crocodiles. Gilmore introduces her protagonist in a direct style that reminds readers of a classic fairy tale or folktale: “There once lived a child the crocodiles called Little Doctor.” Gilmore then gives us a delightful image of the serious-looking kid in her doctor’s office. Croc bones hang on the wall, along with a humorous poster of a crocodile that reads “Catch It/Don’t Spread It.” As the appreciative reptiles reward her efforts with stories, Gilmore fills the spreads with swirling imagery that teases the eye. Most of the plot revolves around the appearance of the Big Mean, a ginormous croc who needs help but refuses to cooperate and keeps threatening to eat our hero. Gilmore builds the suspense with ease: will Little Doctor be able to figure out what’s wrong? Will Big Mean make a meal out of her? When we find out what’s exactly wrong in an effectively handled surprise ending that is very much of our real world, Gilmore delivers a much-needed ecological message that packs a punch. This would make a good companion to Andrea Tsurmuri’s Crab Cake, another funny and poignant charmer about treating our fellow creatures with more respect.


Picture book of the day: Sydney Smith’s Small in the City is a spellbinding stunner

Small in the City, illustrated and written by Sydney Smith, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823442614, ARC reviewed, to be published: September 3, 2019.

On this blog I have said many times that some of my very favorite picture books feel cinematic. In these cases, the illustrator becomes a director, a cinematographer, a film editor–shifting perspective, creating moods through thoughtfully composed imagery. I especially see this striking quality in the wow-inducing work of Canadian illustrator Sydney Smith. My blog entry about the evocative award-winning art he created for Joanne Schwartz’s powerful Town Is by the Sea discusses this aspect.

Small in the City feels like a compelling animated short, the kind that would be up for awards at international film festivals. The book creates a sense of moody mystery from the very first page when we see the shadowy profile of a person riding in a vehicle–the outside world blurry through a window. A flip of the page and we get an exterior shot of what turns out to be a trolley. We see that the person is a small gender-unspecified child wearing a winter’s hat, looking rather concerned and introspective. We go back inside the trolley and Smith shows the child pulling the string that signals the driver to stop, and then a shot showing how small the child is, compared to everyone else, standing in the crowded aisle. A flip of the page and Smith gives a mid-range view of the child, looking tiny, walking with purpose in an urban landscape. With each ensuing page turn, Smith plays with how he frames the action. One spread captures the city’s disorienting loudness by breaking the images into small frames (it feels like a bunch of quick edits). Another illustration shows the child’s fractured reflection in mirror-like windows, conveying the child’s uneasy sadness–this kid feels broken. The reader keeps guessing what’s up with this young protagonist. As a deftly rendered (Smith creates the jawdroppingly beautiful art with “ink, watercolor, and a bit of gouache”) snowfall starts becoming more dramatic, the reader becomes concerned.

The succinct, atmospheric text Smith writes for the story adds another layer of spellbinding drama. Smith uses the “you” pronoun with haunting finesse. At first the reader thinks the narrator is an omnipresent one, directing comments to the child. Then after a while the reader starts to realize that the child is the one speaking. Is the child giving self-motivated advice? Smith isn’t afraid to add some danger to the narrative (“Alleys can be good shortcuts. But don’t go down this alley. It’s too dark.” Or “Three big dog chase and bite each other in this yard. I would avoid the place…if I were you.”).

It soon becomes clearer and clearer what’s going on. And although summaries give away the surprise, I believe for maximum impact it’s best for readers to not know the twist when first reading the book. What’s great about the book is it grows in power on subsequent reads. Listen to the language Smith uses. Look at the washed out, slushy colors Smith employs that call to mind cloudy, snowy days and melancholic moods. Small in the City is a book the reader experiences–sounds, images, emotions. This is the work of a truly gifted picture book creator at the height of his powers.


Picture book of the day: celebrating a milestone with The King of Kindergarten

The King of Kindergarten, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, written by Derrick Barnes, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, ISBN: 978-1524740740.

The terrific The King of Kindergarten starts with a quote from Benjamin Mays: “A child must learn early to believe that his is somebody worthwhile and that he can do praiseworthy things. The child must have the love of family and the protection they give in order to LIVE and FLOURISH.” Author Derrick Barnes (Coretta Scott King Author Honor Winner and Newbery Honor Winner for Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut) builds on this idea beautifully with an inspirational and loving text that bubbles with creativity, wit, and empathy as a boy faces a milestone (the first day of kindergarten). Barnes deftly employs a second person narrator, and the “you” becomes universal, putting the reader in the boy’s shoes. The result is one of the very best “going to school” books I have read. What’s great about Barnes’ premise is although mom and dad treat the protagonist like royalty, the kid doesn’t get all ego-trippy at school. He treats his peers with respect and kindness. He knows that they too are Kings and Queens; he acknowledges that they too are special.

I love Barnes’ use of language throughout, the way he plays with the idea of the boy being royalty as he goes through his morning routine. The kid doesn’t just brush his teeth, he uses a “…a golden brush to clean Ye Royal Chiclets.” He washes his face “with a cloth bearing the family crest.” And he dresses himself “neatly in handpicked garments from the far-off villages of Osh and Kosh.” A school bus becomes “a big yellow carriage” that delivers “you to a grand fortress.” This adds a warm witty humor to the story that elevates the text, giving it a playful spark.

Meanwhile, the supremely gifted illustrated Vanessa Brantley-Newton fills each spread with color and joy. Just look at how the parents radiate love for their child as he wolfs down a tower of pancakes. Look at the loving exchange as dad measures his son, getting so tall he might be taller than his Daddy one day. Her artwork (“hand drawn and then colored using Adobe Phtoshop and Coral Painter”) delights and surprises throughout. For example, the spread showing the teacher discussing counting and letters and telling stories about “trucks, trains, and tractors” to her delighted students has a warm aqua background and images of vehicles and numbers and letters of the alphabet swirling around them. Another spread showing the boy and his new friend pretending to “save the kingdom by battling a fire-breathing dragon” has streaks of color in the background and a chalk drawing of a dragon standing behind the triumphant twosome.

The hopeful book ends with the child returning home, happily remembering such a grand first day. I love how The King of Kindergarten nails its ending. A lot of picture books I have read recently just kind of peter out. But King satisfies with a promise that “tomorrow, it will begin again–another day as the charming, the wonderful, and the kind…King of Kindergarten.” You are happy that you joined him on this journey. And you cannot wait to read the book again, even to yourself or to your storytime crowd that will most likely find his experiences encouraging and rewarding.


Picture book of the day: When Aidan Became a Brother bubbles with joy and love

When Aidan Became a Brother, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita, written by Kyle Lukoff, published by Lee & Low Books, ISBN: 978-1620148372.

What a sweet, joyous, loving book this is, filled with empathy and heart. This own voices story, written with sensitivity and emotional immediacy by Kyle Lukoff, tells of a boy named Aidan who, when he was born, everyone thought was a girl. His parents paint his bedroom walls pink, and dress him in clothes usually worn by girls. “He felt like his room belonged to someone else,” the third person narrator observes, and Aidan starts acting out, ripping or staining his clothes “accidentally on-purpose.” In a beautiful touch, his parents respond to his coming out as transgender in the most accepting way possible, and meet up with other families with transgender kids. A lot of praise must be given to Kaylani Juanita’s warm, inviting, fluid illustrations here. She is great at capturing the love between Aidan and his parents, and excellent at body language (look at the moment where Aidan jumps in the mud to wreck his dress, followed by the image of Aidan happily looking at himself in a mirror after cutting off some of his long hair). When Aidan’s family visits with other families on an outing, Juanita creates a verdant picnic scenario that pleases the eye.

Lukoff’s book reaches an even higher level of dramatic interest when Aidan finds out he will become a big brother. Aidan and his parents make sure that the new sibling will enter an environment that doesn’t reinforce gender. So when people ask “are you excited for your new brother or sister?” Aidan replies, “I’m excited to be a big brother.” Aidan starts wondering if he will make mistakes in his new role, and his mother reassures him by telling him how much he taught her and his father about loving someone exactly who they are. The touching final moments have Aidan feeling hopeful because he knows “how to love someone and that was the most important part of being a big brother.”  I adore the lovely final tableau shows a party for the newborn baby (gender not identified) with balloons spelling out “IT’S A BABY” while people celebrate.

This terrific book ranks as one of the very best of 2019.


Picture book of the day: Oge Mora’s Saturday bounces with a storyteller’s gift

Saturday, illustrated and written by Oge Mora, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316431279, ARC reviewed, to be released: October 22, 2019.

The immensely gifted Oge Mora received both a well-deserved John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award from the 2019 Coretta Scott King committee and a fabulous 2019 Caldecott Honor for her lovely, charming Thank You, Omu!. I am happy to report that her follow-up, the bouncy Saturday, is just as terrific: a beautifully rendered tale that depicts the loving bond between a mother and her daughter named Ava and begs to be read aloud. Mora’s colorful and inventive collages, created (according to the author’s note) “with acrylic paint, china markets, patterned pattern, and old-book clippings,” chronicle the characters’ attempts to enjoy their adventures on their beloved Saturday, the only day the mother doesn’t have to work. They have four activities planned, but unfortunately, something goes wrong every step of the way. For example, a whooshing car splashes them with puddle water after they just had their hair done. Will they keep going? Yes, because IT’S SATURDAY! In her illustrations Mora creates a warm urban world that bubbles with child-like wonder and stylized figures. I love how the word Saturday appears in larger cut-out purple letters throughout, and how Mora employs a similar technique for sound effects such as ZOOOOM! and WHOOOSHH!.

What also comes through in Saturday is Mora’s gift for storytelling. Every word feels carefully chosen, and the action flows gracefully from plot point to plot point. She offers a beautiful set-up and effective follow-through. After each mishap, Mora returns to a rousing recurring phrase “Today will be special. Today will be splendid. Today is SATURDAY” that invites audience participation (I seriously cannot wait to read this to my storytime groups). As a result, Saturday has the feel of a timeless picture book classic. The resolution satisfies as Ava and her maternal unit discover a fun way to shake the day’s disappointments. Mora packs Saturday with fun details, both in her art and in her text, that invite re-reads and re-visits. It’s a celebration of love and perseverance that can be enjoyed any day of the week.