Picture book of the day: a playful poetic journey through rainbow colors in Vivid

Vivid: Poems & Notes About Color, illustrated and written by Julie Paschkis, published by Godwin Books (an imprint of Henry Holt and Company), ISBN: 978-1250122292, ARC Reviewed, to be released: July 31, 2018.

Oh what a fun mix of poetry, science, and artistic inventiveness this is! Julie Paschkis creates a book about colors that beats to the sound of its own drummer, feeling incredibly unique. There have been many books about this topic, but this one feels alive and fresh, pleasing the eye with Paschkis’ gouache on paper illustrations, and pleasantly tickling the ear with her quick evocative poems. Each double page spread celebrates a different color in ways that live up to the book’s title. And meanwhile, in a great bonus touch, Paschkis throws in some quick facts about each color being depicted. The Yellow page talks of “rowdy” daffodils and wow, she manages to make the flowers seem like the rowdiest plants ever. Birds and butterflies frolic under a bright, stylized sun. This spread is classic Paschkis. The yellows burst off the page. A flip of the page and we see the Orange page with monkeys juggling oranges and a quick fact revealing facts about the word “orange.” Then we are treated to the Red page with its modern art shapes and caped cat holding paintbrushes just dipped in red paint. The poem has the cat, named Patrice, asking an overall-wearing dog named Fred “What color paint would you like tonight?.” Patrice lists a bunch of names for red shades, to which Fred succinctly answers, “Red.” I love how a red square fills Fred’s speech bubble. And on the book goes from spread to spread, offering a poem, a fun drawing, and facts about the color. It all results in a climactic rainbow poem that feels, quite literally, like a tasty feast of words and imagery (it’s a rainbow picnic with colorful words about colorful foods).  Paschkis ends with a lovely author’s note with even more facts about colors. What really impresses me with this book is her obvious love and excitement for her topic. This book radiates a joy that is truly enjoyable and captivating.

Picture book of the day: the interactive hilarity of Crash, Splash, or Moo!

Crash, Splash, or Moo!, illustrated and written by Bob Shea, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316483018, ARC reviewed, to be released: September 18, 2018.

I recently had the great fortune to hear Bob Shea read his latest upcoming book out loud, and what a joyful experience it was! His beloved titles all possess a captivating near-manic energy that invites audience participation. Discovering that he brings such rollicking enthusiasm to his readings should not have surprised me…but it did. Sometimes the funniest picture book creators have shyness issues. Shea is anything but–he’s a raucous storyteller, asking readers and listeners to join him on his wildly silly, surreal ride.

Crash, Splash, or Moo! emerges as a clever and goofy spoof of TV game shows. It grabs the reader on its introductory pages that show a blue monkey bouncing across the spreads, flying through the air after hitting a trampoline, all the while asking “Do you like action?” (I can already hear my preschool crowd shouting “YES!!!”) and “Are you a good guesser?” (heck yeah!!!). Mr. McMonkey, rocking a bow tie, then bounces off the page and of course we want to follow him (Shea is a master of the page turn) as he says “Then get ready to play…” (flip) “CRASH, SPLASH, or MOO!” How does one play? Shea reveals the pretty easy instructions. We learn that we will watch daredevils performing elaborate stunts, and we have to guess if they will crash, splash, or say moo. If we guess right, we win a banana, and scoring 100% after watching all the stunts will lead to earning The Secret Prize.

Shea’s pleasantly deranged digital illustrations share the spreads with a variety of lively fonts, and although the results seem chaotic, it’s controlled chaos. The action remains extremely easy to follow as the daredevils perform increasingly bizarre stunts. The first daredevil is a cool dude named Action Clam who, yes, is a clam, but not just an ordinary clam, but a renowned stunt clam! On the same spread we meet “this cow” who, uh er, “does cow stuff.” Stunt 1 finds a quivering, nervous Action Clam in a spotlight getting ready to drive a speedy race car (I like how the vehicle is inside an arrow pointing off the page) into a bunch of blocks. Mr. McMonkey asks “What do you guess will happen?” And in a moment that will surely bring about lively audience participation, Mr. McMonkey asks the kids in the audience to raise their hands if they guess Crash!, Splash!, or Moo!. The Action Clam vrooms across the page and FLIP! (another exciting page turn) we see the word CRASH! fill a red lightning bolt shape. I love the car falling apart and the clam flying through the air. This jolting image serves as a fun counterbalance to the sight of the monkey doing a round of applause, announcing that those who guessed CRASH! have won a banana! The fact that the banana is being presented by a smiling anthropomorphic banana also holding the #1 only adds to the delight.

And so it goes. Crash! Splash! or Moo! zips from one stunt to the next, growing in absurdity. Shea keeps delivering surprises up until the magic reveal of what the Secret Prize is. I simply cannot wait to do this in my interactive preschool story times. Kids will believe in the miracles of stunt clams and cows wearing jet packs achieving glory. A fun ride!

ALA Awards Weekend: revisiting Wolf in the Snow, Out of Wonder, La Princesa and the Pea, and Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut

This upcoming weekend at the American Library Association (ALA) Conference, many of the greatest books of 2017 will receive recognition in special ceremonies. Here is another round of applause for a quartet of amazing books that will be receiving some top illustrator prizes. Congratulations again to the recipients, and thanks for your supermegaawesome books!

The 2018 Caldecott Winner (my review originally ran February 17, 2017):

Wolf in the Snow, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, Feiwel & Friends,  978-1250076366.  First of all let me say I love wolves.  So any book that gives me a great wolf story rises to the top of my “favorites” pile.  This poignant, near wordless tale depicts the bond that quickly develops between a brave young girl wearing a Little Red Riding Hood style jacket and a scared wolf cub separated from its pack on a cold, snowy day.  Cordell’s work is always a joy, but here he does something brand new with his pen and ink with watercolor art, and the result is a book that gives the reader goosebumps.  Cordell serves up two linked storylines that merge as we cut back and forth between the huffing, shivering girl walking home from school and the little wolf who falls increasingly behind its elders.  When the two characters meet on an unforgettable series of spreads, we see a bond form.  And yet, we don’t get a cutesy revelation that the wolf wants to hang with humans.  The reader knows, and the girl knows that she must reunite the frightened animal with its pack, and a real sense of urgency develops.  Cordell gives the work the feel of a timeless fable as the kid saves the creature from a variety of dangers, and is then rewarded later by the wolves who come to her aid.  His masterful use of double page spreads deepens the tension of the unfolding events.  And I love how he puts the girl (holding the cub) and an adult wolf parent in circular frames as they face each other–her eyes wide with terror as the baby wolf howls–they share a connection but nature separates them.  This keeps the book from becoming too saccharine; there’s a sense of danger here.  The humans in the story look stylized in their oversized coats, but Cordell renders the wolves more realistically, and the effect adds punch.  The book’s final third is emotionally satisfying as we see an appreciative lick from the saved wolf cub and howls from its elders that save her life.  Matthew Cordell’s Wolf in the Snow is simply one fantastic book, and will certainly make my list of the very best of 2017.

The 2018 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Winner (my review originally ran March 20, 2017):

Out of Wonder:  Poems Celebrating Poets, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, poems by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth, published by Candlewick, ISBN:  978-0-7636-8094-7.  Usually this blog looks at picture books for younger readers, but also I love giving shout outs to longer illustrated books that are truly special.  Out of Wonder:  Poems Celebrating Poets falls into that truly special category, a brilliant collection of poems by three poets at the top of their game paying tribute to (and writing in the style) of a wide variety of celebrated poets.  Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth write about a range of topics including “How to Write a Poem” (Alexander’s homage to Naomi Shihab Nye), the beauty of the Chilean forest (Wentworth’s celebration of Pablo Neruda), and the work of Sandra Cisneros (a lovely ode by Colderley).  If these wonderful creations weren’t enough, we have Ekua Holmes’ vibrant, brilliant collages giving the book a lush visual beauty, lifting the title to a whole new level of awesomeness.  Holmes, who received a 2016 Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award for New Illustrator Award and a 2016 Caldecott Honor for the great Voice of Freedom:  Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (written by the fabulous Carole Boston Weatherford)does a beautiful job capturing the essence of each work.  Just look at her rich, jazzy illustration accompanying Alexander’s poem “Hue and Cry” (a brilliant tip of the hat to Gwendolyn Brooks):  a woman sits at a piano, giant flower in her hair, colorful cascading dress,  surrounded by music notes on a page, a person playing a saxophone in the right hand of the side of the spread–an explosion of orange and reds.  It might be my favorite illustration of the year so far.  What Holmes shows here is versatility:  a snowy scene with children catching snowflakes on their tongues follows a serene scene of a pensive girl in pink pondering the creation of a haiku while rain pours outside her window (dig those pink flowers that almost match her shirt).  This emerges as one of those magical projects where all the pieces come together beautifully–lovely language and compelling art that make this a true feast of the senses, a work of joy and, yes, wonder.       

The 2018 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award Winner (my review originally ran November 2, 2017):

La Princesa and the Pea, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, written by Susan Middleton Elya, published by G.P. Putnam & Son’s, ISBN: 978-0399251566.

Sometimes an illustrator and author can take a classic tale and make it feel fresh and brand new. By taking The Princess and the Pea and giving it what the book jacket calls a “Latino twist,” the gifted artist Martinez-Neal and writer Elya (her words have a spring in their step) bring a sense of playful joy to the tale of a prince who wants to marry a young woman of whom his mother does not approve. Elya laces the bilingual text with Spanish words (a helpful glossary appears at the book’s start). The story zips from one plot point to the next, with Elya serving up some dramatic tension but also wrapping the reader with a warm but never cloying “it’ll be okay” sense of humor that comforts. Martinez-Neal’s delightful art, created with acrylics, colored pencils, and graphite on handmade textured paper, gives us a compelling cast of human (and in scene-stealing supporting roles, animal) characters who make us giggle with their expressions (the queen’s grumpiness is hilarious, especially when she has an equally grumpy cat sitting on her head). The scene with the princess lying on a pile of colorful mattresses is a sly wonder to behold. Many retellings of folk tales and fairy tales hit shelves every year; this is one of the very best.

And the book that received a 2018 Coretta Scott King Author Honor, Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, Caldecott Honor, and Newbery Honor (plus an Ezra Jack Keats Award)–my review originally ran October 2, 2017:

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.

Picture book of the day: a sneak preview at Yuyi Morales’ extraordinary Dreamers

Dreamers, illustrated and written by Yuyi Morales, Holiday House/Neal Porter Books, ISBN: 978-0823440559, available September 4, 2018.

Soñadores (Spanish edition): 978-0823442584, also available September 4, 2018.

Recently I had the great opportunity to take a sneak peak of Dreamers, the latest picture book by five time Pura Belpré medalist and Caldcott Honor winner Yuyi Morales. I currently do not have the finished book in my hands (I went through the book twice before handing it back to the person letting me look at it), but I do have a sampler containing select breathtaking spreads reminding me of the beauty of this very moving book. I probably should have waited until I had more time with the completed book to write a more thorough review. I simply could not wait to share my enthusiasm over this vivid and personal look at this gifted artist’s immigration experience.

First of all, let me say: what a terrific cover. Hold the book open and there’s a panoramic view of mother and child surrounded by wondrous imagery.

Colorful and filled with warmly surrealistic images and flights of imagination (always a welcome part of Morales’ work), this will appeal and speak to all ages. Dreamers shows the courage it takes to travel to a place where you don’t speak the language. In the 1990s, Morales traveled from Mexico to San Francisco with her baby boy. Using language that manages to feel both spare and epic, Morales creates a work that can be used both in preschool and elementary school story times and with older students studying immigration.

In addition, Dreamers serves as a heartfelt love letter to libraries. The moment when Yuyi and her son enter the children’s section of a  library in San Francisco feels wildly cinematic, as if shot in CinemaScope. We are placed behind them, looking over their shoulders, and we see all those books, imposing at first, but also inviting. Another great spread conveys the wonder they experience as they look at books together–a shark, a rocket, a baseball, a fire truck, other images float across the pages.

In the extremely informative author’s note, Morales discusses how she learned English while reading many picture books to her son. She pays homage to some of their favorite books by drawing their recognizable covers (yay, Keiko Kasza shout out!). It’s a credit to the book’s design that the drawings feel packed without feeling overly cluttered.

I, like most librarians, love hearing how libraries changed peoples’ lives. Many authors and illustrators know this and when presenting to librarians, share great life-changing library anecdotes.  Dreamers is perhaps the most powerful “libraries changed my story” I have ever encountered. I’m not ashamed to say it made me tear up. Her story packs a wallop. This is perhaps her most emotionally direct piece of work.

As we get closer to the September 4, 2018 release of Dreamers (Sonadores in Spanish), I will hopefully have the completed book in my hands again. I will more than likely revisit this special book and write about it once again. Dreamers is, quite simply, a masterpiece.