Picture book of the day: the disorienting surprises of Mighty Moby

Mighty Moby, illustrated by Ed Young, written by Barbara DaCosta, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN:  978-0316299367

I’m going to be blunt:  Mighty Moby is one strange book (and I mean that as a compliment).  However, when you go through it a second and third and fourth time (and beyond), you start seeing that it follows the patterns of many other children’s picture books about toys, imagination, and bedtime.  What Ed Young, in full creative genius mode, and Barbara DaCosta, providing a text that cleverly reminds one of sea shanties, do here is take conventions and spin them into something wildly unexpected.  I don’t want to spoil the big surprise at the end of this book (but I’m guessing I probably gave some if it away).  All I can say is no other picture book this year has made me feel so wonderfully disoriented.  At first we think we are reading a pared down picture book version of the climactic moments of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick with Captain Ahab and his sailors battling the huge whale.  Young’s brilliant, abstract collages (he uses cut paper, photographs, string, and pastel) drop you in the middle of the action.  You have to turn the book vertically for some spreads.  One gasp-worthy page turn gives us a full view of the whale himself (“Shh!  There he is,” the captain whispered and you’re like whoa! being anything but quiet).  The magnitude of the animal is conveyed beautifully.  All the while DaCosta’s energetic prose captures the terror and awe of this showdown.  And then comes the surprise.  Again, it’s a surprise I have seen in several other books, but here the surprise feels so fresh and new as if it had never been done in any previous title.  The surprise is also a genre-flipper:  we think we have been reading an adventure story but instead, we have been reading something else entirely.  Just brilliant.

Picture book of the day: the joy of hearing an audience yell Boo! in perfect unison

Boo!, illustrated and written by Ben Newman, published by Flying Eye Books, ISBN:  978-1911171058.

Wow, what a triumph of book design this is.  With bold shapes and sharp colors and striking typography, Ben Newman’s Boo! is an artfully conceived romp in which, one by one, an animal brags about being the bravest creature there ever was.  As each character speaks highly of itself, another shadowy figure approaches from behind and then screams “BOO” when we turn the page.  I have done this book in story time and the children love guessing what kind of animal the shadowy figure will turn out to be.  And I tell them to shout BOO! on the count of three and they love doing that.  Each page turn offers a vibrant, hilarious surprise.  The reaction of each character after it is startled is priceless.  The beauty of the design starts on the cover with a mouse appearing under the two “O”s in the word BOO cut out in the shape of eyes.  Flip open the book and we see that the eyeballs belong to a crocodile about to chomp on the mouse.  When addressing the reader, each animal starts off with a greeting with an amplified, larger font, and in a nice touch, Newman changes the font for each character.  To say this works in large story times is an understatement:  the illustrations show beautifully across the room.  Kids laugh, scream, and adore the surprise ending.  It will forever be a part of my regular story hour rotation.

The Great Ones Volume 1: R. Gregory Christie–the illustrator as character actor

I am proud to introduce the first in a series of ongoing posts about contemporary children’s book illustrators I admire.  These humble capsules will try to zero in on one thing about what makes this artist a truly special creator of children’s books.  I cannot think of a cooler person to start with than R. Gregory Christie who has given the world over 50 acclaimed picture books over the past 20 or so years.  Christie has won 5 Coretta Scott Illustrator Honor awards (The Palm of My Heart, Only Passing Through, Brothers in Hope, The Book Itch and Freedom in Congo Square), a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (Bad News for Outlaws), a NAACP Image Award, is a three-time winner of the New York Times’ 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the Year (Only Passing Through, Stars in the Darkness, Freedom in Congo Square), a 2017 Caldecott Honor Award (Freedom in Congo Square), among other honors.  To top it all off, he’s one of the nicest people I have ever met.

Recently I had the chance to hear Mr. Christie speak on a panel and one of his comments really stayed with me.  He says that he views himself as a “character actor” style illustrator who bends his art to match the tone of each book.  I went back and looked at some of his work with this in mind and it really makes sense.  He is a brilliant interpreter of an author’s words, capturing the mood that the writer creates.  For a mind-blowing comparison just look at Bad News for Outlaws:  The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal (2009, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, published by Carolrhoda), Sugar Hill:  Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood (2014, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, published by Albert Whitman & Company), The Book Itch:  Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (2015, written by Nelson, published by Carolrhoda), and Freedom in Congo Square (2016, written by Weatherford, published by little bee).

Christie’s work in Freedom in Congo Square, about slaves who endure hard labor during the week and have only one afternoon of joy playing music in New Orleans’ Congo Square, calls to mind the power of great folk art.  We don’t see the features on the slaves’ faces.  Their bodies are bent at painful, difficult angles while working, but are then curved with graceful release when enjoying the music.  Meanwhile, in The Book Itch, about Lewis Henri Michaux and the creation of the National Memorial African Bookstore, Christie creates a real sense of place, making the reader feel as if they are a customer in the famous bookstore.  We see the expressions on the people’s faces, although some of the work is abstract.  Christie serves up beautiful portraits of such historical figures as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.  The Book Itch has a serious tone, especially when the people grieve after Malcolm X’s murder, and Christie’s work doesn’t shy away from this sadness.  What emerges, thanks also to Nelson’s evocative text, is an indelible study of how this book store changed lives.

Compare the serene art in The Book Itch to the bouncy spreads found in the almost giddy Sugar Hill.  Weatherford’s finger-snapping rhymes introduce the youngest of readers to the celebrated Harlem neighborhood where legendary figures as Thurgood Marshall and Lena Horne hung out while children played stickball on the street.  The warm wink on the book’s cover tells you “oh, this will be fun” and Christie’s pastel illustrations create a captivating warmth.  Meanwhile, on the cover for Bad News for Outlaws, a picture book biography about respected Old West lawman African-American Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, Reeves meets your eyes directly–looking dignified and very serious.  Nelson starts the account with a bang (quite literally) showing Reeves in action, and Christie gives us scenes straight out of a movie, with the reader at one point staring down the barrel of Reeves’ gun.  He excels at capturing the landscape and vistas of the Old West.  But mostly what impresses is how Christie depicts Bass’ brave, no-nonsense personality.

R. Gregory Christie is always trying something new in his work.  Although of course you can see similarities in how he depicts body movement and human figures, he flexes his style and this helps each title take on a distinct visual world all its own.

Story Time Success Story: Splatypus brings on the slapstick

Splatypus, illustrated by Jackie Urbanovic, written by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, published by Two Lions, ISBN:  978-1503939202.

As a kid who grew up on Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons, I do love me some slapstick.  Pulling off physical humor can be a daunting task, and I applaud any picture book that brings on the funny.  Illustrator Jackie Urbanovic has proven time and time again in her work (especially in Duck at the Door) that she has mastered the art of slapstick.  She excels at drawing wildly expressive characters with comically flexible bodies.  Match her art with the kind of rollicking text Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen provides in Splatypus  and you end up with a romp perfect for energetic interactive story times.  Of course, tucked in between the pratfalls, trips, and stumbles, as well as the audience participation ready sound effects, is a heartwarming tale about finding your place in the world.  There are even moments of melancholy and loneliness along the way as platypus struggles to emulate the movements of each character he meets (kangaroos, dingoes, possums, fruit bats).  Every attempt at hopping, running wildly, climbing a tree, or flying results in poor platypus crashing to the ground.  The word “SPLATYPUS” fills the page as our poor hero looks dazed.  Bardhan-Quallen’s bouncy, simple rhymes keep young readers engaged, wondering will platypus find happiness?  I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that the title wonderfully takes on a whole new meaning.  Sometimes being a splatypus rocks!