La Princesa and the Pea, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, written by Susan Middleton Elya, published by G.P. Putnam & Son’s, ISBN: 978-0399251566.
Sometimes an illustrator and author can take a classic tale and make it feel fresh and brand new. By taking The Princess and the Pea and giving it what the book jacket calls a “Latino twist,” the gifted artist Martinez-Neal and writer Elya (her words have a spring in their step) bring a sense of playful joy to the tale of a prince who wants to marry a young woman of whom his mother does not approve. Elya laces the bilingual text with Spanish words (a helpful glossary appears at the book’s start). The story zips from one plot point to the next, with Elya serving up some dramatic tension but also wrapping the reader with a warm but never cloying “it’ll be okay” sense of humor that comforts. Martinez-Neal’s delightful art, created with acrylics, colored pencils, and graphite on handmade textured paper, gives us a compelling cast of human (and in scene-stealing supporting roles, animal) characters who make us giggle with their expressions (the queen’s grumpiness is hilarious, especially when she has an equally grumpy cat sitting on her head). The scene with the princess lying on a pile of colorful mattresses is a sly wonder to behold. Many retellings of folk tales and fairy tales hit shelves every year; this is one of the very best.
In the Middle of Fall, illustrated by Laura Dronzek, written by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062573124.
Once upon a time when autumn was my favorite season I shared my enthusiasm for fall with my friend’s wife. She morosely said, “yes, it’s beautiful but it also means everything is dying.” She then sipped her tea and we awkwardly sat there. Only for a few moments before we switched the topic to something more fun. Since then I have become more of a spring and summer person. I like the warmth, the heat. In the Middle of Fall (a companion to the lovely and playful When Spring Comes) helped rekindle those feelings I had for autumn as a kid. But it also touches on the bittersweet nature of the season: yes, it’s a joy to see the leaves change color, the squirrels search for nuts, to leap into leaf piles, and the pumpkins and apples emerge in their splendor, but still there is a sense of melancholy to it all. Droznek’s brown-heavy acrylic paintings, beautifully presented in large double spreads (great design, great dimensions used for the book), do an excellent job capturing the feel and look of fall. The thrill of seeing leaves cascade through the air is especially eye-catching. And I love the squirrel that pops up throughout: sitting on a swing, cradling a yummy apple–it’s not a cute cartoony squirrel, it looks realistic but in a sort of dreamy child-friendly way. Kevin Henkes’ spare, poetic text effectively asks the reader to sit back and remember all the colors and joys of autumn because soon all will be gray and the snow will fall. No, too soon, no winter! Not yet! Yes, even though I have these dreams of an endless summer, the book still makes me feel cozy and accepting of seasonal change. Like the little child smiling on one spread, looking at the reader as leaves fall around them, you feel comforted. Henkes and Dronzek prove once again with this book that they are two of the best children’s book creators at conveying meditative inner-thoughts, asking young folks to pause and reflect. Not a bad thing in this rat-a-tat age.
Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, illustrated by Gordon C. James, written by Derrick Barnes, published by Bolden (A Denene Millner Book/An Agate Imprint), ISBN: 978-1572842243. Release date: October 10, 2017.
Some books feel like instant classics the moment you read them. Some books offer such joy they give you a lift. Some books feel thrilling, alive, and new. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut is that kind of book, a burst of energy that makes you so happy it exists. Author Derrick Barnes writes in an afterword that he wanted to capture the experience of black and brown boys visiting barber shops, receiving amazing haircuts, and leaving with heads held high and with elevated self-esteem. His witty, vibrant prose certainly excels at sharing what a trip to “the shop” feels like, with its second person narration and thrilling sense of urgency. Barnes writes that “you came in as a lump of clay/a blank canvas, a stab of marble” and that the barber is an artist who will treat you like royalty, draping you with a cape, turning you into a Dark Caesar. This is motivational and inspirational writing at its very best, designed to appeal to young guys by putting things in terms that they understand. Barnes avoids sappiness by throwing in funny lines about how you, after getting your fresh cut, become such a star people are “going to have to wear shades/when they look up to catch your shine.”
And I love Gordon C. James’ art in this book. It matches the exuberance, warmth and wit of Barnes’ text while (save one surreal moment of a boy’s head becoming the aforementioned cosmic star) keeping things real. The expression on the boy’s face on the very first page gets us ready for the title’s playfulness: a boy stands with his held up high, smile on his face, slyly giving the reader a sideways glance. This is followed by a more contemplative double spread as the kid walks to the barber chair where the genius barber waits with the royal cape. A flip of the page gives you two images of the boy achieving great things with his new cut, holding achievement ribbons on one side, and (mentioned before) literally becoming a superstar in the cosmos on the other. Then Barnes and James broaden the experience by giving us moments inside the shop, with other customers (grown men) getting cuts of their own. All the while, Barnes’ words compel, and James’ inventive art serves up memorable image after memorable image. The visit results in a fab fresh cut for the boy, with the shop’s other guests wanting to give his new look a standing o. At the very end, as the boy leaves the shop, more “magnificent” and “flawless” (“like royalty”) than before, we have to flip the book so it is vertical. This is extremely effective when delivering the book’s empowering message. The boy appears to be larger than life, brimming with confidence and life. “Hello, world…” Simply one of the year’s best, about a specific cultural experience, but universal to the max.
Where’s Rodney?, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, written by Carmen Bogan, published by Dream On Books and Yosemite Conservatory, ISBN: 978-1930238732.
Artist Floyd Cooper is on a roll. Earlier this year he gave us the beautiful family story The Ring Bearer (reviewed on this blog here). And now there is Where’s Rodney?, a terrific celebration of being a child experiencing the wonder and glory of the outdoors, more specifically the breathtaking national park Yosemite. Author Carmen Bogan’s lively story introduces Rodney, an instantly likable kid who fidgets a bit in class, all the while eyeing what’s going on outside the window. When we first see him, Cooper shows him from behind as he leans up to the window watching a blackbird. His left foot rises off the floor, indicating that this is a boy constantly in motion.
After his teacher, Miss Garcia, tells him and his classmates that they will be heading to a park, Rodney scoffs, thinking they are merely traveling to the humble little park near his house. Little does he know they will be heading to a massive jawdropper of a natural wonder! Cooper’s use of perspective in this book quietly astounds. He knows where to place Rodney on the page for maximum effect. As Rodney travels on the bus to the park, we feel as if we are sitting next to him as he looks out the window. So far everything has felt a little confining, so when we arrive at Yosemite, yowsah! it’s a marvel. Cooper gives us a series of spreads showing Rodney’s delight in being outside. A double page spread showing him from afar, standing on a high rock, is a beaut. Then with a flip of the page we see reclining in a mountain’s crevice. Another great juxtaposition is the spread that shows Rodney looking like a giant as he investigates an anthill on the verso, and tiny as he stands at the base of a tree on the recto. Bogan’s series of opposites (“He was louder./He was quieter./He was faster./He was slower”) keeps the action moving at an exciting pace, and leading up to a beautiful moment with Rodney standing with his hands outstretched and a drop of rain on his forehead and the words “Rodney was outside–more outside than he had ever been before.” I am hoping this beautiful book doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of all the hot fall releases. It’s a joyous celebration of nature and childhood wonder.
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.