Picture book of the day: the sheer fabulousness of Julian Is a Mermaid

Julián Is a Mermaid, illustrated and written by Jessica Love, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763690458 (ARC reviewed).

Some picture books feel like instant classics. You look at the art and immerse yourself in the book’s world and by the end, you cannot think of the world without the book. Julián Is a Mermaid, released on April 23, 2018, joins this esteemed list. I know this seems like an over-the-top compliment, but seriously, this wondrous work has earned these raves, this praise, all the starred reviews. Julián introduces the reader to a boy does not wish to conform to gender standards. He sees three elegant women dressed as mermaids on the train, and their costumes and hair enchant him. Soon we discover that he too wishes to be a mermaid. Jessica Love’s loving and brilliant watercolor, gouache, and ink illustrations do a fabulous job capturing his worldview. We see him imagining himself as a mermaid in a series of underwater images. His hair grows longer, and after a swirl of fish swim around him, he magically has a tail. His abuela snaps him out of his reverie when they reach their train stop. As they walk home on a city sidewalk we see three young girls cooling themselves off with water from a fire hydrant, and just look at how Love excels at body language and showing the movement of the splashing water.

After Julián and his abuela arrive at their home, she heads off to take a bath and tells him “You be good” (I love Love’s spare text, not a word wasted). Julián gives a sly mischievous look at the reader–“Julián has a good idea” the narrator says. He kicks off a sandal and suddenly we watch him change himself into a mermaid by putting part of a plotted pant on his head, flowers from a vase in the headdress, and taking a yellow curtain down to use as a tail. When abuela emerges and sees the now transformed Julián, we think there will be trouble. Uh-oh, the narrator writes as Julián goes from looking triumphant to worried. But then in a beautiful moment, we discover that abuela more than accepts mermaid Julián. She’s the coolest abuela ever.

The book ends with a parade, a celebration, slightly surreal but positively heartwarming. And the fitting ending for a book that deserves to be celebrated.

Oh wow! I cannot wait to read Crunch the Shy Dinosaur to my storytime groups

Crunch the Shy Dinosaur, illustrated by Greg Pizzoli, written by Cirocco Dunlap, published by Random House, ISBN: 978-0399550560, To Be Released: May 29, 2018.

I have been at my current job now for nearly 17 years, which is wild because I’m not getting any older, ha. Doing storytime for a bunch of preschoolers who love being in the mosh pit keeps me feeling youthful. Lately I have been trying to introduce as many new books into the mix as possible, just to keep things fresh and keep me on my toes. And what’s really cool is I still feel that fun tingle of anticipation when an Advanced Reading Copy of a soon-to-be-storytime-favorite comes across my desk. There are books that make me wish the publisher would move up the publishing date just so I can read it to my kids sooner. I anticipate their laughs. I anticipate the audience participation. And I anticipate the whoas. Cue Carly Simon (a pop culture reference that ages me, yes).

Crunch the Shy Dinosaur is such a book. It doesn’t come out to May. The end of May. The very end of May. Whyyyyyyy? : ) This review is of an Advanced Reading Copy.

This fun, meta book joins a growing list of effective titles that encourages interaction with the protagonist. Dunlap’s clever story consists of a variety of ways to make Crunch feel less shy. Pizzoli’s warm yet comical illustrations leap off the page and will show nicely across a room. Dunlap’s sentences (presented in a striking bold font) are simple and direct, but throw in some delightful absurd twists. For example, the narrator instructs the reader to sing Happy Birthday to Crunch who now hides because we have all said hello to him too loudly. Now what child ISN’T going to want to sing Happy Birthday to a shy dinosaur? Soon the reader follows other instructions (say hello quieter) that cause Crunch to get closer…and closer…and then uncomfortably close. Pizzoli has a field day with these moments, with his delightfully rendered Crunch soon filling the page with his lovably large head. I love books surprise me, and Crunch throws in many…including Crunch putting on a bonnet and painting rocks. Yay!!! And in the middle of all the whimsy, there emerges an important message about giving each other personal space.

The end of May cannot come soon enough.



Picture book of the day: memories of joy triumph over evil in Islandborn

Islandborn, illustrated by Leo Espinosa, written by Junot Díaz, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0735229860.

Spanish version also available: Lola, illustrated by Leo Espinosa, written by Junot Díaz, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0525552819.

Adult author Junot Díaz does something brilliant with the vibrant, beautiful, heartbreaking yet ultimately uplifting picture book Islandborn (also available in a Spanish language edition called Lola): he manages to make a political situation understandable for a younger audience. The layered book works on several different levels. Lola, the young girl at the heart of the story, struggles with a school assignment requiring her to find out where her family has emigrated from because she barely remembers the Island (the country is never specified; Díaz himself came as a baby from the Dominican Republic). So she asks a variety of family members and neighbors and they discuss what they remember about the Island. Some of the memories are warm (the music), some fantastical (bats the size of blankets), others tasty (heartbreakingly scrumptious mangoes), a few scary (a hurricane). But then one haunted character tells Lola of the Monster that dominated the Island for thirty years, causing strife and horror. He reassures her that good people stood up against the Monster. Lola takes all these collected memories–happy and sad–and at the end creates a book bursting with color and wonder and triumph. It’s an ending that gives you chills.

The Monster of course can be read two different ways. As an imagined monster that’s something out of a work of folklore (Díaz beautifully puts in fantastical imagery before introducing the Monster, giving the book a folkloric feel) or as a metaphorical symbol of the political dictatorship destroying the lives of the Island’s inhabitants. Clearly the latter is intended, but young children can read the book with the former in mind.

Throughout illustrator Leo Espinosa fills the pages with colorful digital illustrations that successfully capture Díaz’s potent imagery. Very child-friendly and warm, even when showing difficult things, the art bursts off the page on every spread. This is filled with unforgettable images. The drawings show Lola imagining what characters describe to her (blanket bats, people sleeping while dancing, a beach scene with rainbow skies and bowing dolphins) and seeing things from her POV adds a visual zing to the title. The moment we see the Monster (green, giant, fangs, almost looking like a cross between a bat, dragon and spider) is truly startling, making the next spread showing heroic residents (from behind) holding hands, facing a new dawn as the Monster retreats into the sea all the more triumphant. It’s also interesting to note that another striking moment is when, after we hear of life on this tropical island, we see Lola back in the present day walking to her US school…in the snow. Cold after all this warmth. I let out a little gasp–it’s a visual touch that adds another layer, another tangible detail.

In Islandborn, Díaz tells a personal story with rich language and in a manner that does not speak down to children. And Espinosa takes his words and runs with them, matching the words with images that the reader will not soon forget.


Picture book of the day: poetry and photography (and a Donald Crews cameo) in Seeing Into Tomorrow

Seeing Into Tomorrow, biography and illustrations by Nina Crews, haiku by Richard Wright, published by Millbrook Press, ISBN: 978-1512418651.

Thanks to her distinct photocollage technique, Nina Crews’ books look like no others. And her latest Seeing Into Tomorrow emerges as a vibrant and moving celebration of boyhood with often stylized, overlapping photographs (causing a panoramic look) of boys enjoying the outside world. A beautiful haiku by the legendary African American writer Richard Wright inspires and accompanies each double page spread. Crews sets the tone beautifully in a quick child-friendly introduction about Wright. She tells how, as a child, he enjoyed the “sound of trees of rustling in the wind” but grew up in a time “when many people said that little brown boys like him didn’t grow up to be famous writers.” After a celebratory “But he did,” Crews guesses that one of the first words he wrote was most likely his own name.

A flip of the page and we get the first haiku (“Just enough of snow/For a boy’s finger to write/His name on the porch.”) and a photocollage of a child’s glove hand starting to write the word “Richard” in the snow. Another flip of the page and Wright writes of the first day of spring while a bespectacled lad runs across grass–he carries his jacket although some snow still appears on the ground. What follows are fun images, that often have a 3D effect, of boys outside in the country (flying a kite, walking a dog, pointing up at many many clouds, playing on the porch on warm “long slow day,”  reaching for the leaf of a tall tree). By the end of the book Crews illustrates 12 of the writer’s over 4,000 haiku. The book’s design is striking; the font easy to read. Crews ends with an informative biography of Wright.

And if you are a fan of Donald Crews’ Caldecott Honor winning classic Freight Train (and his other great books), you will happily notice that he appears in one of the photographs, standing with his grandson while looking at, of course, a freight train!

This book works on so many levels: as an introduction to Wright’s writing and poetry and contributions, as a celebration of childhood and wonder, and as a terrific collection of photographs assembled by an artist at the top of her game.    

Picture book(s) of the day: learning The Truth About Bears, Hippos, and Dolphins, oh my!

The Truth About Bears, illustrated and written by Maxwell Eaton III, published by Roaring Brook (A Neal Porter Book), ISBN: 978-1626726666. (Available now.)

The Truth About Hippos, illustrated and written by Maxwell Eaton III, published by Roaring Brook (A Neal Porter Book), ISBN: 978-1626726673. (Available now.)

The Truth About Dolphins, illustrated and written by Maxwell Eaton III, published by Roaring Brook (A Neal Porter Book), ISBN: 978-1626726680. (ARC consulted, Available May 8, 2018).

Maxwell Eaton III promises “seriously funny facts about your favorite animals” on the cover of these books and wow, does he ever deliver. This fantastic trio zips along from one punny joke to the next, all the while unveiling some fascinating child-friendly facts about the animals being discussed. Also, like Brendan Wenzel’s playful yet sobering wake-up call Hello Hello, Eaton reminds young readers that many of these creatures are threatened and/or endangered, hopefully planting seeds about wildlife conservation in their minds. Eaton’s cartoon-like illustrations invite us into the animals’ worlds; he uses warm colors that work well with the amusing, lighthearted, yet at times subversive tone.

I love how he introduces the bears in The Truth About Bears (my favorite of the three and the one I’ll be discussing in most detail, although I certainly dig the other two). “This is a bear,” he writes, and underneath these words there is a bear deadpanning “I’m Pete” in a cartoon bubble, standing on four legs but waving with one paw. A flip of the page and we see a polar bear standing next to a small kid. “Bears are big,” says the narrator, to which the polar bear responds, “Or are you just small?” “They have claws,” the narrator proclaims, to which a black bear brags “Big claws!.” And then here comes the joke. “And they don’t really talk,” the narrator reminds us, to which a brown bear says, “No, we roar!” On the bottom of many pages facts appear, and each fact is accompanied by a goofy joke.

Throughout the book Eaton provides info about the three most common bears (I giggled at the polar bear’s “howdy” as it strikes a relaxed pose). I love the penguin saying “Never heard of it” on the page that tells us that “Polar bears live only in the Arctic”. The polar bear points at the top of the globe and says “it’s the other cold place up here.” We are reminded that koalas are not actual bears, told what bears like to eat (one darkly funny moment has a Polar Bear about to eat a seal. “You should probably turn the page,” the bear says to us, looking directly at the reader. “Please don’t,” the seal says), and how much a bear weighs when born (“less than a guinea pig”). Quite simply put, this giddy creation makes learning about bears fun, but also reminds people about Bear Safety–we might be having a laugh, but in the real world there is danger.

And Eaton does just as well by hippos with The Truth About Hippos and with dolphins in the upcoming The Truth About Dolphins. Hippos show the similarities and differences between Common Hippos and Pygmy Hippos, and throws in a terrific gross-out moment on the spread that shows the results of a hippo swishing its tail while going number two (“what a fun fact,” poo-covered child says with palpable sarcasm). There’s a little story thrown into Hippos about a calf looking for their mom that adds more charm. Dolphins also follows this engaging, endearing formula of facts mixed with cleverly rendered funny drawings and asides in cartoon bubbles. “(Dolphins) tell jokes,” one dolphin brags. “Awful jokes,” replies a seagull. Actually, Seagull you are wrong: these are anything but awful jokes.

Those seeking fun non-fiction books to read aloud to groups or to a curious animal-loving kid will enjoy these laugh-a-second yet thoughtful romps.