Big Cat, little cat, illustrated and written by Elisha Cooper, published by Roaring Brook, IBSN: 978-162672-3719. When it comes to picture books, I find my taste goes more for the funny ones, the silly interactive ones. And yet every once in a while, I find myself falling for a poignant, quietly heartbreaking picture book that puts a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. Elisha Cooper’s Big Cat, little cat falls into this latter category, a lovingly told tale of mentorship, friendship, loss, and new hope that takes you on an emotional roller coaster ride. The book’s power sneaks up on the reader; you don’t realize the impact Cooper’s minimalist drawings are having on you. At the start of this cycle of life story, we meet an adult white cat who suddenly has a black kitten in its life. The felines bond as the elder shows the growing kitty the ropes–when to eat and drink and rest, among other things. Cooper does a masterful job capturing their connection with understated, direct text and with seemingly simple drawings. There are actually some quiet laughs to be had as Cooper chronicles their day to day routine (I love how the cats are “hunting” two birds outside their window). But as in Mo Willems’ equally powerful City Dog, Country Frog (2010, illustrated Jon J. Muth), the book becomes a serene look at loss when the white cat, now old, has to go…and never come back. This leads to a series of striking page turns with the image of the black cat alone in a grayish bubble (“And that was hard”) followed by a surprise silhouette of a human family (“For everyone”)–the entire double spread now has the gray background; everybody hurts. Just as all feels lost, the black cat suddenly turns and sees a brand new white kitten, and it’s cat’s turn to take on the role as teacher and guide. Cooper’s latest does what every effective book introducing death to young readers does–it shows the impact the ones we love can have on our lives, giving us the strength to carry on even after they have passed. Just beautiful. And I love the fact that Cooper dedicates the book, I believe, to a long list of very important cats.
Hooray for Birds!, illustrated and written by Lucy Cousins, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 9780763692650. When searching for books for my drop-in preschool storytime I treasure those with dynamic pictures that can show across the room to a large group of people. And I love titles that encourage movement and participation. Lucy Cousins’ Hooray for Birds! contains these elements and then some. When I read this to my group recently, the book practically lifted the children off the ground. They instantly became birds before my very eyes. I didn’t even have to prompt the little ones–the words and pictures inspire them to soar…and make quite a ruckus. Cousins grabs you right on the endpapers with that green background and those inviting bunch of birds rendered in her playful child-like style. The book’s largish dimensions serve the subject matter well (especially when she presents what might be the most friendly-looking swan ever in children’s picture book history). The text on the first page speaks directly to the readers asking them if they are ready to imagine being a busy bird. The children shout “yes” and “hooray” and the fun begins. The birds in this book make noises, swoop, flap wings, snag snakes, scratch the ground, and do all kinds of wild things. The kids happily follow suit. The rhymes have a nice bouncy beat, and some are wonderfully unexpected (darling with starling). The bold backgrounds and font also add to the strength of the book’s design. This companion to Hooray for Fish! (2005) is a rollicking delight that also serves as quite the workout.
On Duck Pond, illustrated by Bob Marstall, written by Jane Yolen, published by Cornell Lab Publishing Group, ISBN: 978-1943645-22-0. On Duck Pond proves what a versatile and innovative illustrator Bob Marstall is. This story picks up where last year’s On Bird Hill left off, with a boy and his dog continuing their nature walk. However, Marstall gives On Duck Pond a different, more naturalistic look than the preceding title. Since On Bird Hill looked at an imaginary kind of bird, the landscape looked like something out of a late 1960s-early 1970s cartoon with its stylized fantastical round hills. When the bird in On Bird Hill emerged from an egg, it had a funny, funky look to it (I loved watching its first comical, rather epic squawk). We only see the boy and his dog from afar, from a bird’s POV way up in a nest in a tree. This all changes in On Duck Pond, where we encounter realistic animal behavior in a non-stylized setting. Marstall’s shift in art style compliments this change in tone beautifully. The ducks look as if plucked from an illustrated, authentic guide to wildlife. We are able to get closer to the boy and dog since the story unfolds on ground level. Yolen’s rhyming tale tells how the other pond animals are enjoying a quiet day before these feathered, quacking party animals enter the picture. Although the ducks bring chaos with them, Marstall never exaggerates any of their physical features or makes them anthropomorphic. And yet this isn’t a static piece of work; there are some playful moments mixed in with the realism. One humorous image shows a frog hopping towards the reader–Marstall matches Yolen’s description of a “quite surprised and very mad” frog beautifully. The story ends with an incomplete sentence, hinting that the boy’s walk will continue. I cannot wait to see where he goes next, what other birds he encounters, and what kind of style Marstall will employ.
Lucía the Luchadora, illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez, written by Cynthia Leonor Garza, published by POW!, ISBN: 978-1-576878279. Wow, what an explosion of action and color this book is, with a heroine who emerges as one of the coolest picture book characters in recent memory. Garza’s language zips and zooms (love those verbs!) as she tells the story of Lucía, a cape-wearing superhero-loving girl demonstrating some awesome moves on the playground. Bermudez’s art pops off the page (I love how she gives Lucía expressive braids that fly in the air) as the protagonist soars and jumps off the monkey bars. I like the fonts used here, with the BAMS and BOOMS catching the eye. After two party pooper buzzkill boys, jealous of her skills, tell her that girls cannot be superheroes, Lucía becomes spicy mad and vents to her abuela. Grandma then reveals something superamazing and the story leaps to another level of cool. Grandma unwraps a box with a cape and silver mask, revealing that she was once a luchadora!, an agile and quick-thinking superhero. Donning the outfit, Lucía heads to the playground looking really rad. What follows is luchadora fever as kids wowed by Lucía’s new secret identity follow her lead. The story ends with a moment of self-acceptance that is truly moving. This vibrant book delivers some important life lessons without feeling overly preachy. Everything about it, from the endpapers to the fun image of a cat and dog wearing capes and masks towards the very end, is absolutely delightful.