Picture book of the day: Brendan Wenzel says Hello Hello to 96 animals in a most brilliant way

Hello Hello, illustrated and written by Brendan Wenzel, published by Chronicle Books, ISBN: 978-1452150147, ARC copy reviewed, book to be released on March 20, 2018.

The wow factor. That’s what Brendan Wenzel’s latest celebration of the natural world Hello Hello has throughout, but especially when you reach a double page spread that is filled with animals big and small. Against a spare white background, each creature manages to pop off the page and make an impression. And all of them have those Brendan Wenzel Eyes (I call them Wenzelian)–googly and warm and friendly (he truly has a unique, distinct style). His love for these animals is apparent. Although Hello Hello can be seen as a fun romp that finds similarities and differences between a vast variety of species, the message he delivers is sobering one: many of them are endangered, near threatened, vulnerable, or critically endangered. He invites readers young and old to try and save them.

The look of Hello Hello will remind picture book fans of his great Caldecott Honor title They All Saw a Cat. Rendered with all kinds of media (cut paper, colored pencil, oil pastels, marker, computer), the illustrations have a playful, inventive feel as Wenzel and his designer present cool, intriguing ways to present the always intriguing compositions. The first spread shows a white cat facing a black cat while the words “Hello hello” appear on the right hand side. A flip of the page and we see the words “Black and White” and a black cat joining a black bear and then striped animals. One little black and white striped fish swims on to the next page, continuing a feel of connectivity. Suddenly with a flip of the page there is a burst of color. The black and white fish swims up to a blue fish who is hovering over a lizard’s blue tail. The lizard’s red head is looking up at the red head of a bird. The bird’s green wing matches the green of the coral a nearby seahorse is swimming through. And so on. Wenzel meanwhile keeps the language succinct and simple and yet evocative: “Hello Color/Hello Bright.” One animal moves to the next page and we see new patterns. Some animals are Giant (“Hello Giant”) and some are Not (“Hello Not”). Hello Hello is the kind of fabulous picture book that grows in power with each read through. He takes unexpected turns with the language (“Hello Tongue, Ears, Hands and Nose/Hello Pattern/Hello Pose”). The animals all have a texture–you feel as if you can touch the page and feel the scales, shells, and quills (“Hello Whoa!”). The book takes on a zen feel, inviting you to slow down and examine the images, and to think about the beauty of each animal on the page. It’s a masterful work that’s fun…but with a message.

Also, I must add that the backmatter is excellent. A visual key to the animals appears and we learn about the status of many of them.

Two illustrators change up their style with Grandma’s Purse and If I Had a Horse

Grandma’s Purse, illustrated and written by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Knopf, ISBN:978-1524714314.

If I Had a Horse, illustrated and written by Gianna Marino, Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626729087.

Two of the very best illustrators working today are Vanessa Brantley-Newton and Gianna Marino. And it’s a thrill watching them do something new with their sparkling just released works, Grandma’s Purse and If I Had a Horse. Both books seem so effortless as they create a warm, cozy mood, and yet as you examine the illustrations you discover that they are intricate, packed with striking details and memorable imagery.

Is there an artist who creates sweeter illustrations than Vanessa Brantley-Newton? I’m talking sweet without being overly cloying. She excels at humane drawings that show people connecting and bonding. Just look at My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay (written by Cari Best), Early Sunday Morning (by Denene Millner), or The Hula-Hoopin’ Queen (by Thelma Lynne Godin). In the delightful Grandma’s Purse, which she also wrote (she mostly illustrates works by others), a young girl, who also narrates the slice of life anecdote, asks her Grandma, aka “Mimi,” to show her the contents of her purse. Mimi lovingly cooperates, removing each object and explaining its importance. As a longtime fan of Brantley-Newton, I noticed something cool about the art in this book. It’s definitely very Brantley-Newtonesque, but she is changing up her style here. It’s a little looser, a little freer. Look at Mimi’s hair, which is like a bunch of scribbles. This gives the book a playful feel as Grandma discusses everything from the hairpins that hold her aforementioned hair together to the change purse her husband brought back from Japan ages ago. It all leads to a nice big surprise for the little girl, one that feels just right. Brantley-Newton creates pictures you can get lost in–the details on the green couch, that ginormous plant is slightly lopsided, the cute toys on the floor, and a cat smiling at us in most every frame. I doubt that there will be a more life-affirming family story out this year.

Gianna Marino is pretty much a chameleon as an illustrator. When you look at her comical cautionary tale Too Tall Houses, you notice that it’s very different from the melancholic whale bonding tale Following Papa’s Song or the slapsticky Night Animals. I love those books, and others by her, but I have to say If I Had a Horse may now be my favorite book by her. Done completely in silhouettes, the gentle book shows a girl dreaming of befriending a horse. We first see her holding out an apple to the creature. Each page turn shows him getting closer and closer to her. He munches on the apple, and she hugs him and then starts riding on him. Okay, this description might sound mundane, but yowsah, just look at the art. Those colors bring out all kinds of emotions, showing the horse and girl not agreeing in some spreads, but then reconciling. The spare text can be applied to any friendship with its ups and downs. What’s interesting about the book is its a story about conquering fears without being overly preachy. The shadows create moods, and the moods create images that stay in the memory long after you close the book.