In the Middle of Fall, illustrated by Laura Dronzek, written by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062573124.
Once upon a time when autumn was my favorite season I shared my enthusiasm for fall with my friend’s wife. She morosely said, “yes, it’s beautiful but it also means everything is dying.” She then sipped her tea and we awkwardly sat there. Only for a few moments before we switched the topic to something more fun. Since then I have become more of a spring and summer person. I like the warmth, the heat. In the Middle of Fall (a companion to the lovely and playful When Spring Comes) helped rekindle those feelings I had for autumn as a kid. But it also touches on the bittersweet nature of the season: yes, it’s a joy to see the leaves change color, the squirrels search for nuts, to leap into leaf piles, and the pumpkins and apples emerge in their splendor, but still there is a sense of melancholy to it all. Droznek’s brown-heavy acrylic paintings, beautifully presented in large double spreads (great design, great dimensions used for the book), do an excellent job capturing the feel and look of fall. The thrill of seeing leaves cascade through the air is especially eye-catching. And I love the squirrel that pops up throughout: sitting on a swing, cradling a yummy apple–it’s not a cute cartoony squirrel, it looks realistic but in a sort of dreamy child-friendly way. Kevin Henkes’ spare, poetic text effectively asks the reader to sit back and remember all the colors and joys of autumn because soon all will be gray and the snow will fall. No, too soon, no winter! Not yet! Yes, even though I have these dreams of an endless summer, the book still makes me feel cozy and accepting of seasonal change. Like the little child smiling on one spread, looking at the reader as leaves fall around them, you feel comforted. Henkes and Dronzek prove once again with this book that they are two of the best children’s book creators at conveying meditative inner-thoughts, asking young folks to pause and reflect. Not a bad thing in this rat-a-tat age.
Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, illustrated by Gordon C. James, written by Derrick Barnes, published by Bolden (A Denene Millner Book/An Agate Imprint), ISBN: 978-1572842243. Release date: October 10, 2017.
Some books feel like instant classics the moment you read them. Some books offer such joy they give you a lift. Some books feel thrilling, alive, and new. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut is that kind of book, a burst of energy that makes you so happy it exists. Author Derrick Barnes writes in an afterword that he wanted to capture the experience of black and brown boys visiting barber shops, receiving amazing haircuts, and leaving with heads held high and with elevated self-esteem. His witty, vibrant prose certainly excels at sharing what a trip to “the shop” feels like, with its second person narration and thrilling sense of urgency. Barnes writes that “you came in as a lump of clay/a blank canvas, a stab of marble” and that the barber is an artist who will treat you like royalty, draping you with a cape, turning you into a Dark Caesar. This is motivational and inspirational writing at its very best, designed to appeal to young guys by putting things in terms that they understand. Barnes avoids sappiness by throwing in funny lines about how you, after getting your fresh cut, become such a star people are “going to have to wear shades/when they look up to catch your shine.”
And I love Gordon C. James’ art in this book. It matches the exuberance, warmth and wit of Barnes’ text while (save one surreal moment of a boy’s head becoming the aforementioned cosmic star) keeping things real. The expression on the boy’s face on the very first page gets us ready for the title’s playfulness: a boy stands with his held up high, smile on his face, slyly giving the reader a sideways glance. This is followed by a more contemplative double spread as the kid walks to the barber chair where the genius barber waits with the royal cape. A flip of the page gives you two images of the boy achieving great things with his new cut, holding achievement ribbons on one side, and (mentioned before) literally becoming a superstar in the cosmos on the other. Then Barnes and James broaden the experience by giving us moments inside the shop, with other customers (grown men) getting cuts of their own. All the while, Barnes’ words compel, and James’ inventive art serves up memorable image after memorable image. The visit results in a fab fresh cut for the boy, with the shop’s other guests wanting to give his new look a standing o. At the very end, as the boy leaves the shop, more “magnificent” and “flawless” (“like royalty”) than before, we have to flip the book so it is vertical. This is extremely effective when delivering the book’s empowering message. The boy appears to be larger than life, brimming with confidence and life. “Hello, world…” Simply one of the year’s best, about a specific cultural experience, but universal to the max.