Picture book of the day: Brendan Wenzel offers another thought-provoking look at perspective with A Stone Sat Still

A Stone Sat Still, illustrated and written by Brendan Wenzel, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-1452173184, ARC reviewed, to be released: August 27, 2019.

Writing about this outstanding picture book poses a bit of a challenge.

There is such much going on, so many different layers at work here, so many intriguing spreads to point out and describe. I could compose an epic-sized essay that still wouldn’t do Brendan Wenzel’s work justice. It’s a book that throws many visual ideas (and puns) at the reader, juggles several playful notions about perspective, and delivers a powerful ecological message as well. And it’s all about a stationary rock that Wenzel says (in a recurring meditative refrain) sits still “with the water, grass, and dirt/and it was as it was/ where it was in the world.”

This title serves as a companion to the 2016 Caldecott Honor winning modern picture book classic They All Saw a Cat, which shows how the appearance of a feline would change depending on who views her. Wenzel takes this idea and runs with it even further. Animal after animal encounters the stone, and the conditions surrounding the encounter change, but not in any way the reader expects. For example, “the stone is bright” shows an owl at night sitting on the titular object–it is indeed bright but because of the moon glow. The rest of the scene has a dark nighttime feel; I love this juxtaposition. In other moments, the stone feels rough to a smooth snail, but smooth to a rough porcupine. A wolf interacts with the stone by smelling it, while otters associate the stone with their sense of taste by having their meals on it (“the stone was a kitchen”). To a giant moose the stone is a pebble, to a little beetle the stone is a hill. Oh, and I love the sneaky regal look on that wildcat’s face on the “and the stone was a throne” page.

I have written a lot on this blog about the way Brendan Wenzel has his own unique style. Even though Wenzel is endlessly inventive, taking wildly different approaches to creating his art, using all kinds of materials to do something new from spread to spread, his artistic creations always shout out “I have been created by Brendan Wenzel!” It’s in the way he creates the animals’ eyes (I call them Wenzelian Eyes), their bodies. His love for the animal world shines through in every moment. When Chronicle, the book’s publisher, allowed me a sneak peak at this work and asked what I thought, I wrote this in my response: “I consider Brendan Wenzel one of the most inventive illustrators working today, and A Stone Sat Still reaffirms this. What I always see in his work is a joy for creativity, for illustration, for art (with a love for nature as well). The philosophical nature of the book is haunting: the stone sitting still while change goes on around it, meaning so many things to so many beings. His work here is distinct and superlative. It’s a book that only Brendan Wenzel could create.”

A Stone Sat Still serves up an intriguing twist halfway through that involves the stone becoming submerged under water. A sense of melancholy prevails and haunts, inviting reflection. The final images of the stone sitting still in the world are both beautiful and mesmerizing. This is one of those terrific picture books that stay in the memory long after you close it, and invite you to revisit it on a frequent basis to bask in its inventive wonder.

 

Picture books of the day: four stories look at the joys (and wildness) of having pets

Bruno, the Standing Cat, illustrated by Jean Jullien, written by Nadine Robert, published by Random House Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0525647140.

How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy Steps, illustrated by John Martz, written by Nicola Winstanley, published by Tundra, ISBN: 978-0735263543.

Sparky & Spike: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever, illustrated by Dan Andreasen, written by Barbara Lowell, published by Cameron + Company, ISBN: 978-1944903589.

Truman, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins, written by Jean Reidy, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1534416642, to be released: July 9, 2019.

Owning a pet can be a joyful experience–or sometimes a challenging one. This lively, lovely quartet of stories celebrate the special and sometimes strange friendships children can have with their pets. All four of them amuse and provide genuine uplift thanks to witty, eye-catching illustrations and compelling texts custom made for energetic storytimes.

I have used Bruno, the Standing Cat in several of my programs and the kids love the absurd twists writer Nadine Robert throws their way. One day in his house, a boy hears an insistent meowing nearby. When he opens the door there’s a box marked “Bruno” on his doorstep. Out pops a cat who can, yes, stand (and can do so much more we soon learn). The kid’s pal Pam stops by and proceeds to ask him questions about the feline. And every answer is an absurd one. For example, when Pam wonders if Bruno munches on normal cat food, we learn that the cat loves to chew bubble gum…upside down. Jean Jullien’s hilarious illustrations with their bold lines add to the sense of giddy anarchy.

If Bruno the cat races from one situation to the next, the turtle star of the delightful upcoming Truman achieves things both modest and great slowly yet effectively. This sweet (but never saccharine) tale sneaks up on you and has a quietly hilarious punchline. Essentially a warm tale about separation anxiety, the book introduces readers to a girl who loves her pet turtle and he adores her. He notices that she’s giving him extra treats and she seems to be leaving him behind for the WHOLE day. She is heading towards her first day of school. Not acceptable! Truman decides that he will escape his aquarium and follow her there, facing his fears as he does so. What’s great about Jean Reidy’s book is it stays true to Truman’s turtle nature: he doesn’t get very far physically. Illustrator Lucy Ruth Cummins does a fabulous job chronicling his trek. And yet for Truman this journey helps him emotionally. It’s an especially big day for him and readers happily share it with him.

One of my favorite pieces of backmatter can be found in the charming Sparky & Spike, which tells a fictionalized account of Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz’s childhood bond with his pet dog Spike (the inspiration for Snoopy). At the end of the book, illustrator Dan Andreasen shares an actual 1975 letter of encouragement he received, as a child, from Schulz himself (a response to the boy’s fan letter). So it’s no surprise that Andreasen illustrates this account with love and heart. Writer Barbara Lowell does a beautiful job showing how Schulz, nicknamed Sparky, loves spending time with his most unusual pet. This pooch knows how to tell time, recognizes several words, and has a most unusual diet. Sparky also loves reading the comics and wishes to be a cartoonist (in a smart touch, Andreasen employs comic strip-style panels on many spreads). A melancholy loneliness hangs over some of the telling, with Sparky feeling alone at school even though his peers love his cartoons. A neat twist involving Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! dominates the book’s final section, bringing things to a wonderful, satisfying close. In addition to being an absorbing story, the book serves as a highly informative look at a beloved cartoonist.

The first three books discussed here all show the fun of being a pet owner. Meanwhile, although there’s a love between child and cat, the playfully subversive How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy Steps captures the pratfalls of doing a seemingly simple, much-needed task. Writing in the style of a instruction manual with succinct deadpan language, author Nicola Winstanley speaks directly to the reader, losing patience as the purple-haired kid doesn’t quite follow or understand the directions that turn out not to be so clear after all. “Step One. Fill the bathtub with warm water./That is too much water./Put a little warm water in the bath./Sigh. Step One. Put a little warm water in the bath. The water should come up to your’s cat knees.” The kid replies “knees?” Meanwhile, illustrator John Martz amusingly shows the cat constantly escaping. The task becomes increasingly impossible. The girl keeps needing milk and cookies to recharge. Messes are made. More than five steps are needed. What I love about this book is it doesn’t end sweetly with the cat begging for friendship or forgiveness after wreaking such havoc; there isn’t a saccharine hug. Instead, there’s a witty resolution that lets cats be cats and kids go grrrrrrr. Hilarious.

 

Quick takes: 12 more picture books I really like from the first part of 2019

 

There are have been so many first-rate picture books this year. So many that I am having trouble keeping up writing about them. So in an effort to acknowledge some terrific works I offer up some quick takes–a few sentences about 12 books that deserve attention and love.

B Is for Baby, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank, written by Atinuke, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536201666.

The author of the Anna Hibiscus early chapter book series serves up a bright, bustling baby-eye view of a bouncy trek to Baba’s bungalow. Brooksbank’s beautiful illustrations complement a buoyant storytime-friendly romp that bursts with “B” sounds.

The Girl and the Wolf, illustrated by Julie Flett, written by Katherena Vermette, published by Theytus Books, ISBN: 978-1926886541.

Any book that champions wolves rises to the top of my list. Like a warm weather companion to Matthew Cordell’s glorious Wolf in the Snow, this heartwarming story tells of girl in red helped by a wolf. Vermette fills her text with empathy, and Flett laces each image with graceful dignity.

Good Night, Wind: A Yiddish Folktale, illustrated by Maelle Doliveux, written by Linda Elovitz Marshall, published by Holiday House, ISBN: 978-0823437887.

Using a playful, cool collage technique, illustrator Doliveux gives readers a weary wind looking to nap after a long winter quite a vibrant personality. Not a single word is wasted in Marshall’s evocative retelling, and the wind emerges as an unforgettable character.

The Goose Egg, illustrated and written by Liz Wong, published by Knopf, ISBN: 978-0553511574.

This has already become a storytime favorite this year with a meditative, peace-loving elephant who suddenly finds herself mothering a very noisy goose. Wong delights with the narrative’s twists, pulling off the title’s wordplay with comical finesse, and offering a solution that, while expected, satisfies.

 

Lenny the Lobster Can’t Stay for Dinner…or Can He? You Decide!, illustrated by Catherine Meurisse, written by Finn and Michael Buckley, published by Phaidon Press, ISBN: 978-0714878645.

Michael Buckley teams with young son Finn for this darkly hilarious account that mixes in elements from the Choose Your Own Adventure novels. Meurisse has a blast with the illustrations, creating a memorable, incredulous lobster hero who finds out the real reason he has been invited for dinner. Run Lenny Run!

Lion and Mouse, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng, written by Jairo Buitrago, published by Groundwood, ISBN: 978-1773062242.

Buitrago expertly builds on the old Aesop fable, throwing in some new twists and new lessons about friendship along the way. Yockteng’s beautifully detailed illustrations create a memorable visual experience. You feel as if you can pet the characters’ fur. I love their expressions. Perfect for storytime.

Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando, illustrated by Kana Urbanowicz, written by Andrea Wang, published by little bee books, ISBN: 9781499807035.

I love picture book biographies that introduce me to an underrated person who created something that had major impact. Wang’s informative account tells how and why Momofuku Ando created ramen, and every page feels like a new discovery. Urbanowicz’s illustrations deftly create mood and a sense of time and place.

Peter & Ernesto: The Lost Sloths, illustrated and written by Graham Annable, published by First Second, ISBN: 978-1626725720.

Okay, I’m sneaking a somewhat longer graphic novel on here. Why? Because this sequel to last year’s equally fab Peter & Ernesto effortlessly brings on the laughs and adventure as a bunch of sloths look for a new home. I love the way Annable renders his hapless, lovable creatures. Those eyes, oh, those eyes.

Sea Bear, illustrated and written by Lindsay Moore, published by Greenwillow Books, ISBN: 978-0062791283.

Moore’s poignant depiction of a polar bear struggling as climate change destroys its habitat offers evocative illustrations and extensive back matter. This is nature picture book writing at its finest–clear, energetic, heartbreaking.

Sweet Dreamers, illustrated and written by Isabelle Simler, published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0802855176.

Ah, look at the textures on Simler’s computer illustrations of peaceful sleeping animals. Each spread has a succinct poem accompanied by a faraway view and close-up of a resting creature. The bat is my favorite, but the whole book is sublime.

When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree, illustrated by Lorraine Rocha, published by Jamie L.B. Deenihan, published by Sterling Children’s Books, ISBN: 978-1454923817.

Hey kids, don’t underestimate grandma’s gift-giving skills! That lemonade tree might not seem so exciting at first, but it’s a gift that keeps on surprising and giving. Deenihan’s bubbly text serves as the perfect match for Rocha’s warm illustrations.

When Spring Comes to the DMZ, illustrated and written by Uk Bae-Lee, published by Plough Publishing House, ISBN: 978-0874869729.

This fascinating and personal book transports readers to Korea’s demilitarized zone where nature thrives and mingles with barbed wire and warning signs. Uk Bae-Lee does an expert job explaining a complicated topic to young readers.

Picture book of the day: Why?–because Laura Vaccaro Seeger creates another poignant, thoughtful book

Why?, illustrated and written by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823441730, ARC reviewed, to be released: August 13, 2019.

Anyone who has hung out with an inquisitive child will recognize and relate to this book’s scenario: a little rabbit (a stand-in for the child reader) keeps asking the bear “why?” about various situations. And yet Laura Vaccaro Seeger, the gifted two-time Caldecott honor winner, takes the seemingly simple situation and adds a poignant spin to it that elevates the work to another level. Although warm, her lovely watercolors never feel saccharine or cutesy. The animals emerge as pensive, soulful creatures, never cloying. Seeger makes them appear realistic even when engaging in anthropomorphic behavior (like looking through a telescope). I love Seeger’s approach to her topic. We don’t get the rabbit’s full question, only a “why?”. The bear’s responses help fill in the blanks, as do Seeger’s evocative illustrations. The questions start off as relatively breezy with the bunny wondering why bear waters flowers or why bear enjoys honey. But they grow in intensity, laced with a sense of melancholy. Soon rabbit bombards bear with a bunch of questions, and bear, when posed with a question about a dead bird, finally has to admit that they don’t have all the answers. It’s a surprising gut punch, a moment of vulnerability on the bear’s part. Sometimes elders don’t have all the answers. Seeger turns the situation around during the book’s final moments with the rabbit saying something that prompts the bear to ask “why?”. Although snow falls from the sky, the warmth of their friendship shines through. The final image is haunting and beautiful.

Picture books of the day: chaos and rumpuses in 4 funny romps: The Great Outdoors, Harold & Hog, Little Guys, and Vroom!

One of the fun things about writing these blog entries is finding connections between new releases that seem otherwise unrelated. For example, the four titles discussed here all offer wild rumpuses and chaos. And this equals of course surefire storytime success for those who like to inject a little wildness into their programs. So let’s go to where the wild things are and celebrate these vibrant, fast-moving delights.

The Great Indoors, illustrated by Ruth Chan, written by Julie Falatko, published by Disney/Hyperion, ISBN: 978-1368000833.

The members of a human family heading out on a camping trip have no idea that their temporarily vacant home will attract a bunch of thrill-seeking forest creatures looking for adventures in the–ta da (and I’m loving the wordplay here)–Great Indoors. Falatko grabs the reader with the very first line: “The bears always arrived first.” Ooh, consider me intrigued. And then she fills her story with comical details (a teenage bear calling dibs on the bathroom with her blow-dryer in hand) that build with giggle-inducing intensity. More animals arrive: beavers set up camp in the kitchen, the deer rock things up dancing to their karaoke machine, and so on. Of course they start damaging the house and getting on each other’s nerves. Illustrator Ruth Chan’s delightful drawings serve up wildly expressive cartoon characters. I love the wired skunk who has drank too much coffee. She fills each spread with perfectly rendered slapstick. It’s a manic triumph of picture book hilarity.

Harold & Hog Pretend for Real! (An Elephant & Piggie, oops I mean a Harold & Hog, Like Reading book), illustrated and written by Dan Santat (with contributions from Mo Willems), published by Disney/Hyperion, ISBN: 978-1368027168, to be released: May 7, 2019.

Many young readers love Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie series, following the easy reader-style, speech bubble-packed adventures of a carefree pig and her more careful elephant pal Gerald. Caldecott winner Dan Santat takes the Elephant & Piggie formula and spins it on its head with this witty, meta new installment of the Elephant & Piggie Like Reading series. Harold & Hog adore the beloved characters and decide to emulate their heroes by pretending to be them. The only problem is Harold the elephant is the carefree one, and Hog, well, Hog is a bundle of neurotic nerves. It’s an absolute joy watching Santat take this comical conceit and running with it, especially when Harold dances and flies across the page while trying to teach Hog how to stop being so uptight. And yet under all the goofiness emerges a message about individuality and friendship that remains true to the very best of Willems’ stories.

The Little Guys, illustrated and written by Vera Brosgol, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626724426.

The great Vera Brosgol received a well-deserved 2017 Caldecott honor for Leave Me Alone! (wow, who were those smart people on that committee?), an ingenious mix of old-fashioned folklore and outlandish sci fi. The Little Guys is her first picture book as illustrator and writer since that honor, and it’s an idiosyncratic cautionary tale that mixes a lesson with the laughs. Wearing acorns on their heads, these multi-colored little guys with their stick legs seem endearing and adorable at first. We’re on their side, applauding the fact that they show no fear in the big, dark forest, and that they exude resourcefulness as they search for a piece of cake. But then Brosgol pulls the rug out from under the reader. The little guys start getting, well, downright jerky: knocking chipmunks and foxes out of their homes and joining forces to steal a berry from a bird’s beak. Brosgol’s art is remarkably fluid here (this would make an excellent animated film). I love the facial expressions on the various animals (I seriously think that Brosgol ranks with the very best in terms of giving each character she draws vivid features and characteristics). Thankfully the Little Guys learn their lesson by the end. Phew!

Vroom!, illustrated and written by Barbara McClintock, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, ISBN: 978-1626722170, to be released: July 2, 2019.

I have always loved the work of Barbara McClintock, and associate her with more history-minded picture books (such as last year’s glorious Nothing Stopped Sophie, written by Cheryl Bardoe). The fact that I love her new book, Vroom!, is no surprise. But I am genuinely surprised by its content and story, although it does celebrate girl power like many of her books. This title has a more contemporary feel than her previous works. Vroom! stars a red-haired young girl named Annie who loves hopping into a race car and soaring out her second floor bedroom window (love that moment of subversive surrealism) and out into the great wide open. The book’s rectangular dimensions serve the story well as she glides through the prairie, over the mountain, into the desert, city, and onto a race car track. Always zooming forward to the next page. McClintock offers a variety of views of the girl in action: over her shoulder, in front of the car, off to the side, up above. The book emerges as another prime example of picture book as cinema. I love the wild moment when she returns home, zipping through the livingroom, whipping by her family and her pets all lifted off the ground by her triumphant entrance. This book would be the perfect end to a storytime celebrating movement and the joy of creating wild rumpuses.

 

 

 

Picture book of the day: just look at that art in Going Down Home with Daddy

 

Going Down Home with Daddy, illustrated by Daniel Minter, written by Kelly Starling Lyons, published by Peachtree, ISBN: 978-1561459384.

On the reference desk I am often asked for beautifully done picture books that depict extended families. The stunner Going Down Home with Daddy, about a young boy named Lil Alan heading to his Granny’s house to celebrate the history of his family, will be one I highly recommend when this question arises. Kelly Starling Lyons’ evocative, empathetic prose is a poignant delight to read, filled with details that capture the closeness and love that the relatives feel for one another. All the children will do something special for Granny: recite a poem, sing a song. The drama at the heart of the story revolves around the protagonist’s fear that he won’t have anything to offer. He can feel the stage fright weighing down on him. Yet something magical happens: after Lil Alan hears about his ancestors, about his dad’s own past nervousness during a similar occasion, everything clicks and he delivers a moving tribute.

Daniel Minter’s paintings, done in an acrylic wash, add to the book’s power. Experimental and unique, his art captures the haziness of a warm summer day, of a beloved memory. Yellows, earth tones, swirls, dusty textures all take us to that farm where Granny lives, feeding her stylized chickens. Deep blues convey serenity of a family happily reuniting, remembering. Figures often appear as semi-silhouettes. Images of trees populate the spreads. The accumulation of these dramatic spreads creates an unforgettable picture book experience. This is one of the very best books of 2019.

 

 

 

Storytime Success Story: warning–these three books will cause raucous, rollicking laughter

The Very Impatient Caterpillar, illustrated and written by Ross Burach, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-1338289411.

Bears Don’t Eat Egg Sandwiches, illustrated by Rachel Suzanne, written by Julie Fulton, published by Maverick Publishing (distributed by Lerner), ISBN: 978-1848863583.

Let’s Have a Dog Party!, illustrated and written by Mikela Prevost, published by Viking, ISBN: 978-0451481177.

Once a month I read stories and sing songs with 4 and 5 year olds who travel from their nearby preschool to the public library where I work. These kids and teachers are every children’s librarian’s dream: they absolutely love books, especially funny, goofy, outlandish, silly, preposterous ones. They adore singing their hearts out. They are also enablers, allowing me to become extremely hammy and go over the top with character voices, sound effects, and slapstick shtick. It’s a blast trying new material out on them.

For the April storytime, I began with Ross Burach’s The Very Impatient Caterpillar, and oh wow Burach delivers one giddy deliriously funny romp. It’s an absolute blast reading the conversation between the titular character, exasperated that the metamorphosis progress will take TWO WHOLE WEEKS!, and a far more patient peer. Burach tells the tale completely with speech bubbles. His wildly expressive cartoon characters whip fast-paced dialogue at one another. Burach takes us inside the caterpillar’s chrysalis where it engages in a frenzied self-directed “you can do this!” “no you can’t!” monologue that is an absolute joy to act out (I adore the moment we see a perplexed squirrel observe the shaking chrysalis, hearing the caterpillar’s argument with itself). I love humor that surprises me and it’s a thrill to report that I never knew what Burach was going to do next. The kids in my audience laughed with glee at every line and every colorful illustration. Many funny picture books I have read this year have great scenarios but don’t quite stick the landing, this one does (and more), ending with a very funny punchline. Burach makes it all look easy, when we all know that creating a brilliantly funny picture book with expert page turns takes skill and, well, patience.

Next up I shared Bears Don’t Eat Egg Sandwiches, written with succinct immediacy by Julie Fulton and illustrated with inventive joy by Rachel Suzanne, with the group. This might be the most British picture book of the year. I wanted to read it in my best British accent, and looking back, I think I did. A resourceful red-haired boy named Jack has made himself a pile of egg sandwiches when suddenly a hungry bear appears at his door. Usually at the beginning of a book I give the kids a special job to do, a recurring phrase to shout out. This book makes that process easy. Whenever Jack offers the bear an egg sandwich, the bear shouts the title “BEAR DON’T EAT EGG SANDWICHES!” So on a count of 1, 2, 3…I have the kids yell that line with me. Oh, they love it. The story is simple: we know what the bear really wants to eat, but the way Jack gets out of being chomped is pretty darn inspired. And very funny.

And finally, Mikela Prevost’s Let’s Have a Dog Party! has, as Betsy Bird pointed out, one of the best covers of the year. I mean, look at that poor beleaguered pooch. Not exactly enjoying that surprise party vibe. Prevost starts off with a humorous situation: a dog named Frank just wants to rest in his favorite spot but his owner Kate and her friends suddenly appear, invade his space, and force his birthday party on him. The children, meaning well but not reading the canine’s body language, wrap up things Frank already owns (plus a dried-up lizard from outside) and re-gift them. They plop a party hat on his head and tie balloons to his body. We see (and hear) the kids from Frank’s exhausted POV–their mouths opened wide, laughing, singing, completely oblivious to the dog’s agony. Prevost’s art crackles with comic intensity. In the storytime, I had the children sing Happy Birthday to Frank (although the words to the song don’t appear in the text) and told them to do it way off-key. They happily obliged. When Frank runs to hide in a smelly shoe closet, Kate realizes her oopsy mistake. Her understanding friends leave. What emerges is a story about empathy and respecting boundaries. Prevost uses humor to deliver a message that we all need to hear. Sometimes a quiet celebration is the best one. And although it ends the humor-drenched storytime on a reflective note, it’s also good to end a program with a tale that invites sweet slumber.