A Perfect Day, illustrated and written by Lane Smith, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626725362. This hilarious romp plays with the idea that sometimes one character’s happiness can come at the expense of another’s joy. The ever-smart-alecky Lane Smith gives us, his audience members, a soothing first half, only to pull the rug out from under our feet. And instead of feeling betrayed by the tonal shift, we laugh quite giddily at the author/illustrator’s audacity. The book plays as a sorta reversal of Kevin Henkes’ A Good Day (Greenwillow, 2007) which shows a bunch of animals in sad situations undoing what’s wrong and happily emerging triumphant. A Perfect Day shows four animal characters in states of bliss, only to have a fifth animal character stomp its way into the frame and cause total chaos. Smith’s language is simple and direct when introducing a cat enjoying the sun’s warmth as it frolics in daffodils, a dog cooling off in a wading pool, a chickadee eating seed found in a bird feeder, and a squirrel munching on corncob left for it by a caring boy named Bert. For each animal, Smith says “it was a perfect day.” Nothing could go wrong, right? Wrong! In bursts bear and all heck breaks loose. The other animals flee, but bear is too busy devouring the squirrel’s corncob (I love that corncob grin), licking the chickadee’s birdseed, guzzling down the dog’s pool water, and rolling around in (and thus destroying) the cat’s daffodil patch to notice them totally freaking out. Smith writes (tongue in cheek): it WAS a perfect day for such and such an animal as each ursine indiscretion takes place. I love how the bear’s big body fills the pages–you cannot help but love the ginormous lug (although Smith’s message seems to be “hey, don’t be this guy…don’t be this bear”). What’s visually striking about this book are Smith’s textures. Although the tale can be seen as a dark comedy, the book’s art has a real beauty to it. The animals have this cool, scratchy look that give the impression you can feel them when you touch the page. Same with the pool, the nearby house, with the flowers and plants that burst on the pages. Packed with memorable imagery (the final moment is both funny and oddly haunting–you question the fairness of it all even as you’re chuckling), this is the work of a picture book genius at the top of their game.
The Ring Bearer, illustrated and written by Floyd Cooper, published by Philomel (an imprint of Penguin), ISBN: 978-0399167409, to be released: April 4, 2017. Every once in a while on the children’s reference desk I receive the question: are there any good books about ring bearers? There are a handful, but not many covering this topic. That’s why I’m extra thankful for Floyd Cooper’s charming new slice of life tale of a young boy named Jackson facing this role with excitement but also some trepidation. His mom will be marrying a loving guy named Bill who has a daughter, which means Jackson will instantly become a big brother. This also causes the sensitive kid some concern: will he be a good older sibling? Cooper’s paintings create a warmth without feeling treacly. He especially excels at depicting body language in his double spreads. Just look at the first spread of Jackson worrying and looking pensive–we see him from the side, laying down but a bit contorted, his eyes closed as if thinking deeply, his hand on his chin. His soon-to-be-stepsister’s pink bike pops off the page. Throughout the book Cooper uses perspective in a striking fashion; he knows exactly where to place the characters for maximum effect. What’s especially beautiful about the story is how it celebrates empathy. Loving adults reassure Jackson that things will be just fine–he will be an awesome ring bearer and an even better older brother. During the ceremony, Jackson catches his stepsister who trips, and this moment feels epic in Cooper’s hands. Cooper deftly captures that instant when a child’s confidence blossoms, and a new loving bond is formed. Reassuring and tender, The Ring Bearer emerges as poignant coming of age tale that works on so many different levels.
Mine!, illustrated and written by Jeff Mack, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-1452152349. To be released: May 9, 2017. In some of his best and funniest books, Jeff Mack says so much with one or two words. An expert cartoonist, Mack gives the reader wildly expressive characters who experience chaos and disorder when all they want is relaxation (the frog in Ah, Ha!), a playmate (the giant ape in Playtime? and Look!), or laying claim to what appears to the greatest giant rock in the world (the mice in Mine!). His “wordier” books are also joyous and fun (the exuberant Duck in the Fridge). And yet there is something so cool about those books in which Mack only uses a few repeated words–they manage to give young readers a story that feels complete, with a beginning, middle, and an end. The person reading the book aloud can use vocal inflection to show how the word can mean something different with every new plot twist. Mine! reminded me a lot of those funny if startling Spy Vs. Spy cartoons that appear in MAD magazine (although there are no weapons–well the wrecking ball might count as a weapon): two mice (one blue and the other orange) battle over a rock, and the one-upmanship intensifies, growing increasingly funny. Using mixed media, Mack masterfully uses a handful of colors here; note how when the orange mouse wins a round the background and font go orange, and then when the blue emerges victorious (only momentarily) the background and font go, you got it, blue. The moments where a mouse is tempting the other with a diversion, Mack gives us a yellow that reminds us of yummy cheese. Everything leads to a real big surprise that I will not reveal. All I have to say is I look at hundreds of picture books and for a book to make me actually jump with surprise, well, that’s an achievement. Mine! is a rollicking treat.
Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, poems by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0-7636-8094-7. Usually this blog looks at picture books for younger readers, but also I love giving shout outs to longer illustrated books that are truly special. Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets falls into that truly special category, a brilliant collection of poems by three poets at the top of their game paying tribute to (and writing in the style) of a wide variety of celebrated poets. Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth write about a range of topics including “How to Write a Poem” (Alexander’s homage to Naomi Shihab Nye), the beauty of the Chilean forest (Wentworth’s celebration of Pablo Neruda), and the work of Sandra Cisneros (a lovely ode by Colderley). If these wonderful creations weren’t enough, we have Ekua Holmes’ vibrant, brilliant collages giving the book a lush visual beauty, lifting the title to a whole new level of awesomeness. Holmes, who received a 2016 Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award for New Illustrator Award and a 2016 Caldecott Honor for the great Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (written by the fabulous Carole Boston Weatherford), does a beautiful job capturing the essence of each work. Just look at her rich, jazzy illustration accompanying Alexander’s poem “Hue and Cry” (a brilliant tip of the hat to Gwendolyn Brooks): a woman sits at a piano, giant flower in her hair, colorful cascading dress, surrounded by music notes on a page, a person playing a saxophone in the right hand of the side of the spread–an explosion of orange and reds. It might be my favorite illustration of the year so far. What Holmes shows here is versatility: a snowy scene with children catching snowflakes on their tongues follows a serene scene of a pensive girl in pink pondering the creation of a haiku while rain pours outside her window (dig those pink flowers that almost match her shirt). This emerges as one of those magical projects where all the pieces come together beautifully–lovely language and compelling art that make this a true feast of the senses, a work of joy and, yes, wonder.
The Way Home in the Night, illustrated and written by Akiko Miyakoshi, published by Kids Can Press, ISBN: 978-1-77138-663-0, to be released April 4, 2017. Originally published in Japan in 2015, this moody, beautiful import shows an anthropomorphic rabbit family walking home at night. Although I find this cozy and comforting overall, I have to admit I find its surreal dream-like quality a bit creepy on another level. There’s something Lynchian about the imagery (in fact the rabbits remind me of the strange human-sized bunnies in Lynch’s Inland Empire) with the rather dead-eyed toddler rabbit (being carried by mom at first, and then later a father who joins them on their nocturnal stroll) looking in windows at other animals engaging in mundane activities that somehow seem mysterious and otherworldly in Miyakoshi’s hands. I mean, I bet you can read this in a sinister voice and end up with eerie story perfect for a scary story time. Or read it in a comforting voice and lull a little one to sleep. The expert, panoramic illustrations rendered in pencil, charcoal, and acrylic gouache masterfully give us a shadowy night both serene and spooky. It creates the same mood that Miyakoshi’s great The Tea Party in the Woods (Kids Can, 2015) creates. What the author does is deftly capture a child’s wonder about the world, showing the kit lie in bed wondering about the neighbors it just saw, with extra concern for a lonely traveler looking sad on a train. This book takes the “good night” genre and turns it on its head, and I find the results refreshing and unforgettable.
Round, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo, written by Joyce Sidman, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN 978-0544387614. This celebration of all things round makes an indelible impression thanks to Sidman’s succinct text and Yoo’s charming mixed media illustrations. A nature-loving girl spends her day and night discovering a whole bunch of round objects such as seeds, turtle eggs, yummy-looking blueberries, a full moon and even dung beetle dung. The child’s quietly enthusiastic first person narration is poetic and yet still manages to sound refreshingly kid-like, filled with wonder and awe. And I give Sidman a round of applause for that–so many books from a purported kids POV sound too adult. Yoo’s vibrant spreads, which show the child enjoying her day with an older family member (dad? uncle? brother?) and in one spread some friends, are so warm (even when depicting rainfall) you will want to start planning your next nature hike. This enchanting book feels like the warm hug that ends the story, but is never cloying or cutesy–it serves as a vivid reminder that we need to embrace the natural world.
Little Fox in the Forest, illustrated and written by Stephanie Graegin, published by Schwartz & Wade, ISBN: 978-0-553-537901. This near-wordless wonder (“near” because I’m counting some words on a chalkboard), done in graphic novel style, reminded me of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz in regards to how it uses color. We start off in a world of bluish-grays and blacks when first introduced to a young girl who adores her little stuffed fox. I love the spread that shows her looking at old photos taken of her and her fox, given to her as a baby. This charming detail gives us a complete history of the bond between child and toy. After a successful show-and-tell at school, the girl puts the little fox in her backpack which she sets by a swing set. Suddenly there’s a burst of color on the page as a REAL fox, an orangey red critter in a yellowish striped shirt, appears and becomes smitten with the toy fox and takes off with it. What follows is a tour de force of illustration as the girl chases the culprit into the woods (her bespectacled boy pal follows as well). Expert use of shadows adds depth and we get double page spreads that feel cinematic (Graegin beautifully uses the book’s wide dimensions to full effect). When other animals enter the frame, they too are in full blown color, popping off the page. In a nice touch, Graegin gives us a moment where we enter the thoughts of the fox who imagines all the good times it will have with its new possession (look out for that weasel!). There’s a breathtaking moment when the children enter the animal world and suddenly it’s like when Dorothy first sees Oz–a double page spread in thrilling colors (the illustrations were rendered in pencil, watercolor, and ink and then assembled and colored digitally according to the illustrator’s note). I won’t spoil what happens with the little toy fox, but an agreement is reached, and whether this agreement feels fair could lead to a good discussion. This visually arresting tale takes readers on an emotional journey and emerges as an instant classic.