Picture Book of the Day: Mike Twohy’s playfully absurd Mouse and Hippo

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Mouse and Hippo, illustrated and written by Mike Twohy, published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (A Paula Wiseman Book), ISBN:  978-1481451246.  Sometimes a book comes along that gives me a giddy giggling fit; I start laughing and then cannot stop.  And Mike Twohy’s Mouse and Hippo happily joins that esteemed list.  This book beats to the sound of its own drummer, follows its own inner-logic, and the humor keeps surprising the reader.  The dialogue between the two titular characters (set in two distinct fonts) is often absurd, and Twohy’s appealing cartoonish illustrations (rendered in India ink, water color, and felt pens) do a fantastic job making the humorous interplay zing and pop.  What emerges is a goofy yet effective friendship tale in which two unlikely pals discover the power of art.  Twohy, who received a 2017 Geisel Honor for the delightful Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run!, introduces his little mouse character as an artist working on its latest masterpiece.  The little rodent stands on what appears to be a rock on a lake, but the rock turns out to be a hippo tickled by the mouse’s easel.  Hippo explodes out of the water knocking the poor mouse into the depths.  I adore the jarring start to the story and the expressions on their startled faces.  The laughs start really kicking in when Hippo notices what a great artist Mouse truly is, and the Mouse offers to paint Hippo’s portrait.  Twohy starts giving us the silly playfulness kids totally dig as the characters take turns painting each other.  This is imaginative play at its best.  I keep asking myself:  how will I explain these visual jokes to you dear reader?  And I really cannot.  You need to see the book yourself.  All I have to say is when the Hippo describes one painting as “awesome,” the same could be said for this cheerful romp.

Picture Book of the Day: Keiko Kasza, queen of the plot twists with Finders Keepers (2015)

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Finders Keepers (2015), illustrated and written by Keiko Kasza, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 978-0399168987.    I had to temporarily suspend my blog from July 2015, right after my role as a 2017 Caldecott Committee member officially began, to late January 2017 after the winner of the award (Javaka Steptoe’s brilliant Radiant Child) was announced.  So that meant I couldn’t review Keiko Kasza’s absolutely wonderful 2015 storytime delight Finders Keepers.  Until now.  Better late than never.  I am a huge fan of Kasza’s work, as shown in this blog post from the previous incarnation of this blog.  And Finders Keepers expertly serves as an example of what she does best:  giving readers an unpredictable story with many twists and a surprise ending.  I always tell people asking for great examples of picture books that teach young children the art of narrative that Kasza that is a master spinner of deceptively simple yarns.  In this tale, a squirrel wearing a cool red hat buries his acorn to munch on later.  He instructs the hat to stay put and cover a hole he dug to bury the treat.  After he walks away, a wind lifts the hat to a tree where a bird lives who says ooh “finders, keepers” and turns it into a nest.  And so begins a fun journey as the hat goes from bird to ant to bear, each new character saying “finders, keepers” when they see the spiffy chapeau.  I always have the kids say that recurring line along with me and the characters after a count of three.  Kasza has mastered the page turn and this story propels forward quickly, creating suspense and laughs.  Her graphite and colored pencil, gouache, and oil pastels give us expressive, instantly lovable characters (love the contented look on the ant’s face as it sails down the stream in the hat which now serves as a boat) that jump off the page with their energetic personalities.  There isn’t a wasted detail here.  And of course there’s a typically great Kaszaesque surprise ending that implies that the story has just begun.  A keeper.

Picture Book of the Day: Jon Agee’s delightfully strange Life on Mars

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Life on Mars, illustrated and written by Jon Agee, and published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN 978-0399538520.  Review of the galley; book is out 2/28/17.  OK, I admit it…I have David Bowie’s song “Life on Mars?” going through my head as I write this, although Jon Agee’s latest comic gem has nothing to do with that catchy tune.  And on another side note, I just learned that seven new planets have been discovered!  So it seems only fitting to be writing about this strange otherworldly delight.  This tale gets a lot of comic mileage out of a scenario kids love:  seeing something that a character is completely oblivious to; children love knowing something others don’t.   Chronicling a child’s journey to the Red Planet, the book’s first person narration serves as a perfect example of disconnect between text and image.  The kid (identified as a boy on the book jacket) lands on Mars’ surface in a snazzy rocket, hoping to find life, and bearing gifts (yummy chocolate cupcakes to be exact).  He’s filled with bravura at first, saying that he will prove that there is–hence the title–Life on Mars.  However, he grows increasingly mopey as he finds nothing but rocks and dirt, and decides to head home to Earth.  What follows is a hilarious game of “LOOK BEHIND YOU!!!” as a sweet, silent, and ginormous Martian follows the clueless pint-sized astronaut.  This round, blobby creature has one of the funniest entrances I have seen; it peeks out from a crater after the child passes it–I love its pointy ears.  Agee does a commendable job conveying the humorous tension of the situation, with the child’s smallness serving as a counterbalance to the grand scope of the landscape and the large alien.  As in his recent It’s Only Stanley and Lion Lessons, Agee ends things with a fun, satisfying punchline.  Quite simply, this is another winner from a comedy master.

Picture Book of the Day: Jessixa Bagley’s hilarious romp Laundry Day

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Laundry Day, illustrated and written by Jessixa Bagley, published by Neal Porter/Roaring Book Press, ISBN:  978-1626723177.  Give me a picture book that makes me laugh and I’m one happy camper.  Fortunately 2017 has been off to a great start in terms of humorous new offerings, and I’ll be discussing a number of them over the next several days.  First up is Jessixa Bagley’s delightful romp Laundry Day, which, in terms of tone, emerges as a rollicking change of pace after the more melancholy Boats for Papa (poignant and moving) and Before I Leave (still sniffing).  Skillfully serving up her story mostly double page spreads, Bagley introduces two young badgers named Tic and Tac, decked out in striped shirts and jeans.  They spend a gorgeous sunny day bored out of their wits, and no activity their mother suggests appeases them.  Check out their body language on the opening spreads–they’re on the ground, arms extended, looking all forlorn at the sky.  I love how laundry sails off mother’s overflowing basket as she walks by, landing on their faces.  This laundry snaps them into action and they start chasing after one another, underwear and pants on their heads.  When mom suggests they help with the laundry, Tic and Tac suddenly become even more energized, and they become, well, just a tiny bit slightly overzealous when hanging up clothes.  And a whole bunch of other objects.  Bagley uses the dimensions of the book beautifully, giving us an epic slapstick comedy in cinemascope widescreen as Tic and Tac go overboard.  There’s also a colorful beauty in Bagley’s pen and watercolor drawings that give the book a classic feel.  It all leads to a rather surprising and silly ending that will have young readers giggling.  A fantabulous delight.

Picture Book of the Day: Kevin Henkes’ surprising and surreal Egg

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Egg, illustrated and written by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow Books, ISBN:  9780062408723.  This is Kevin Henkes’ 50th published book, and easily ranks with his very best, joining his fabulous, life-affirming books about, among many others,  Lilly, Owen, Sheila Rae, Julius, and a certain Kitten obsessed with a Full Moon that looks like a bowl of milk.  In under 20 words and using comic book style panels with brown ink outlines, Henkes takes the reader on a bouncy emotional journey here, making the reader giggle, gasp, sigh sadly, and then cheer with hope.  There are many surprises in the book, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the big one at the story’s center.  And there’s a surreal surprise at the tale’s end that emerges as one of Henkes’ most magical moments ever.  This is Henkes at his most playful as he introduces four eggs done in charming watercolors that call to mind Easter eggs–one pink, one yellow, one blue, and one green, each (for the first several spreads) residing in its own square on the page (the book’s design is crisp and clean).  Despite using minimal language, he gives the person reading the book a lot to play with as the green egg refuses to hatch.  Try not having a blast asking the children to say the words along with you on the first spread:  “egg  egg egg egg” and then the second:  “crack crack crack egg” (that green egg refuses to crack) and then the third:  little birds popping out “surprise surprise surprise egg” (nothing popping out of that green egg just yet).  I have read this book to several groups and believe me, you can get a lot of comic mileage out of the way you say “egg” when you point at that reluctant green egg.  There’s also a page with where we are “waiting” and Henkes repeats the words several times–you can speed up the “waitings” and slow them down or read them all quickly or slowly.  It doesn’t matter; the kids are usually doubled over with laughter.  And then Henkes treats us with a LOT of surprises that you will have to discover for yourself.  Egg impresses because it does so much with seemingly so little; as you dig deeper, you see the rollicking beauty inside.

Picture Book of the Day: the wondrous Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell

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Wolf in the Snow, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, Feiwel & Friends,  978-1250076366.  First of all let me say I love wolves.  So any book that gives me a great wolf story rises to the top of my “favorites” pile.  This poignant, near wordless tale depicts the bond that quickly develops between a brave young girl wearing a Little Red Riding Hood style jacket and a scared wolf cub separated from its pack on a cold, snowy day.  Cordell’s work is always a joy, but here he does something brand new with his pen and ink with watercolor art, and the result is a book that gives the reader goosebumps.  Cordell serves up two linked storylines that merge as we cut back and forth between the huffing, shivering girl walking home from school and the little wolf who falls increasingly behind its elders.  When the two characters meet on an unforgettable series of spreads, we see a bond form.  And yet, we don’t get a cutesy revelation that the wolf wants to hang with humans.  The reader knows, and the girl knows that she must reunite the frightened animal with its pack, and a real sense of urgency develops.  Cordell gives the work the feel of a timeless fable as the kid saves the creature from a variety of dangers, and is then rewarded later by the wolves who come to her aid.  His masterful use of double page spreads deepens the tension of the unfolding events.  And I love how he puts the girl (holding the cub) and an adult wolf parent in circular frames as they face each other–her eyes wide with terror as the baby wolf howls–they share a connection but nature separates them.  This keeps the book from becoming too saccharine; there’s a sense of danger here.  The humans in the story look stylized in their oversized coats, but Cordell renders the wolves more realistically, and the effect adds punch.  The book’s final third is emotionally satisfying as we see an appreciative lick from the saved wolf cub and howls from its elders that save her life.  Matthew Cordell’s Wolf in the Snow is simply one fantastic book, and will certainly make my list of the very best of 2017.        

A pleasure to serve on the 2017 Caldecott Committee! (an entry from previous blog)

Hello, hello, hello!  I had the privilege and the honor of serving on the 2017 Caldecott Award committee.  It was a complete joy to work with 14 amazingly insightful individuals to pick this year’s honorees.  2016 proved to be an incredible year for illustrated books.  I cannot reveal anything about our fantastic conversations, but I am proud to give a shout out to this year’s winner and the four honor titles (in alphabetical order by title).

Here I am in a photo by Lynn Trautmann with the Caldecott winner (Radiant Child) and the four honor titles (Du Iz Tak?, Freedom in Congo Square, Leave Me Alone!, and They All Saw a Cat).

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The winner of the 2017 Caldecott Medal!

Radiant Child:  The Story of Young Artist Jean Michel Basquiat, illustrated and written by Javaka Steptoe, published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.  The ALSC Caldecott page says it best:  “Like Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work, Steptoe’s illustrations radiate energy and immediacy. A patch-worked canvas of scavenged wood, painted and collaged with photos, and images of human anatomy, evokes the improvisatory nature of Basquiat’s art. “Radiant Child” resonates with emotion that connects Steptoe with Basquiat and Basquiat with young readers.”  This is the first time the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Winner and the Caldecott Award went to the same book!

The four honor books:

Du Iz Tak?, illustrated and written by Carson Ellis, published by Candlewick Press.  From the ALSC Caldecott Page:  “A diverse community of anthropomorphic bugs is intrigued by an unfurling sprout. Carson Ellis deftly depicts the mysteries of life in an imaginary, natural world. Through intricate details and the witty humor of a made-up language, “Du Iz Tak?” is a treasure trove of visual and linguistic literacy.”

Freedom in Congo Square, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, published by Little Bee Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing Group.  From the ALSC Caldecott page:  “As they work throughout the week, slaves look forward to their afternoon of music, hope, and community in Congo Square, New Orleans. Christie’s folk-art inspired paint and collage images powerfully capture the emotions of this little-known historical event. Vibrant color and brilliant use of line heighten the impact of the rhyming couplets.”  Christie also received a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for this powerful book.

Leave Me Alone!, illustrated and written by Vera Brosgol, published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership.  From the ALSC Caldecott page:  “At the end of her rope, Granny is desperate for time alone to finish knitting sweaters for a house filled with dozens of rambunctious children. Brosgol’s expressive watercolor and cartoon art presents a genre-breaking journey taking Granny from the traditional forest setting to the mountains to the moon and beyond.”

They All Saw a Cat, illustrated and written by Brendan Wenzel, published by Chronicle Books LLC.  From the ALSC page:  “A cat’s walk through the world becomes a surprise-filled exploration of perspective and empathy. As the feline encounters a variety of creatures, the thoughtful composition paired with spare language and repetition focuses on each individual’s perception of it. Wenzel’s use of a range of art materials reinforces the idea that the essence of a cat might be in the eye of the beholder.”

Congratulations to these five outstanding picture book creators.  I see something new every time I look at these unforgettable books.