Picture books of the day: the works of Kevin Henkes and Laura Dronzek remind me of Mr. Rogers in the very best way

A Parade of Elephants, illustrated and written by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow Books (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062668271. ARC reviewed, to be released: September 25, 2018.

Winter Is Here, illustrated by Laura Dronzek, written by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow Books (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062747181, ARC reviewed, to be released: October 30, 2018.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching that lovely documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, please do so now. Or, in honor of the great man himself, you can wait. Wait until DVD or Blu-Ray or until it inevitably streams. Waiting is good. Waiting builds character. In several great segments of the film, Fred demonstrates on his long-running classic TV program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood how slowing things down can be good. He puts a turtle on the ground and the camera watches as the creature crawls across the sound stage. He puts on a timer and has the viewer watch one minute count down. The state of children’s television concerned Mister Rogers. The hyper slapstick, the bombastic advertisements. He found it all dehumanizing. So he did something about it, creating a TV show that celebrated patience. That celebrated waiting.

While looking at two new books written by picture book master Kevin Henkes, I realize that Henkes reminds me of Mister Rogers. In the best way possible. His books have a gentle spirit that ask children to pause and reflect. His illustrator wife and frequent collaborator Laura Dronzek also relishes in conveying the beauty of calmness, capturing little moments that may have otherwise gone unseen. This is most apparent in Henkes’ solo efforts Waiting and Egg, and in their collaboration Birds and in their quietly vibrant books about spring, autumn, and now winter (what happened to summer? Well, it does get a mention in When Spring Comes).

Winter Is Here practically asks to be read in hushed, falling snow tones. Henkes’ simple, direct sentences (“Winter is here./It’s everywhere”) have a wonder to them that matches Dronzek’s evocative art. The muted colors in the illustrations soothe the eye. She somehow manages to give the reader warm, cozy feelings even as we look at icicles dangling from houses and snow “sticking to the trees in clumps and curls.” Henkes brings some understated poetic flourishes to some of his lines (“Winter is reaching through the branches/and crouching in doorways”) and Dronzek responds with images that fill the senses. You can feel the wind ruffling the squirrels’ fur, the birds’ feathers. This meditation takes a bittersweet turn when Henkes reminds us “But Winter can be hard, too” and Dronzek shows a curious dog looking at leaves trapped under the ice in a pond. Yet even here there’s beauty: “The leaves underneath are like stars in glass.” The collaborators touch on how getting dressed in winter can take a long time in a series of drawings depicting a child putting on a LOT of winter clothes. I love the triumphant glow surrounding the kid when fully dressed. The winds can howl. And they remind us that winter “stays/and stays/and stays” until it “shrinks away bit by bit,” finally giving way to spring. The very best picture books take readers on a journey, and Winter Is Here makes the reader feel as if they experienced an entire season in one sitting.

Henkes’ solo offering A Parade of Elephants has a bit more of a rollicking spirit, but although the five pastel-colored beasts march about, the book still glimmers with a gentleness that invites reflective “aaaaahs” and “oooohs” from young children. Presented in the same square-like dimensions as the fun Egg, Parade serves that same preschool audience. It has a bold font and a clear design; thick borders surround the characters. It starts off as a counting book on a page divided into five rows. The row with the number “One” has one elephant, “Two” two elephants, and so on. A flip of the page reveals the quintet in a row, marching. And another flip of the page announces that it’s “A parade of elephants!” And let me say that they might be some of the most adorable elephants ever in a picture book: blue, yellow, lavender, green, pink, surrounded by butterflies, under a warm sun. Then they march in a circle and Henkes adds to the playfulness of the scene with the lines “Big and round/and round they are./Big and round/and round they go.” He then explores opposites in a clear fashion with the elephants going up and down hills, over a bridge and then under some trees. After an eventful journey, Henkes brings things to a quiet resolution with the elephants exhausted, yawing and stretching…and then in a magical moment that lifts the book up to a higher level they lift their trunks and trumpet. Stars pop out of their trunks, scatter, and then fill the skies. And quietly and surprisingly A Parade of Elephants becomes one of the strongest bedtime books of the year. Sigh, it’s so good.


Picture book of the day: a superlative look at a groundbreaking mathematician in Nothing Stopped Sophie

Nothing Stopped Sophie, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, written by Cheryl Bardoe, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316278201.

I have to admit: I’m not exactly a math person. Although I can add and subtract quite quickly (I once had aspirations of being an accountant–was it because of Gene Wilder in The Producers?), more complex forms of math make my head spin. I admire people who can tackle that tough mathematical stuff. With Nothing Stopped Sophie, a superlative picture book biography detailing the contributions of Sophie Germain who lived “long ago in Paris” (during the French Revolution to be exact), the gifted Bardoe excels at making this groundbreaking woman’s story exciting and accessible for a young audience. And Bardoe taps into the child reader’s need for fairness. When society tries to sweep Sophie’s talent and successes under the rug because of her gender, kids will feel upset about this and want her to prevail. The fact that she perseveres despite the many obstacles gives the reader feelings of hope. Bardoe effectively gets inside Sophie’s head, explaining how “Math, with its clear and simple laws./Math, with its strong sense of order” helped Sophie make sense of her world.

The great illustrator Barbara McClintock also takes the reader inside Sophie’s mind. She fills her illustrations (colorful markers, gouache, collage) with witty mathematical details. In one inventive spread numbers and equations fill the air, and make up the architecture. In another, McClintock divides a stylized image of Sophie at her desk (surrounded by and blending in with pages from academic journals) into a broken up series of panels. She expertly uses the longish rectangular dimensions of the book to create cinematic images (look at that double page spread of Professor Joseph-Louis Lagrange startled to discover that the “man” who impressed him with mathematical prowess was actually Sophie). Later in the book when Sophie becomes interested in vibration McClintock provides sweeping imagery that practically vibrates: birds flying, lines zooming across a page. Bardoe continues to wow with evocative prose: “Sophie’s work sent shock waves through Paris.” I love the spread consisting of a series of thumbnail-style drawings (it’s like a film montage) showing her hard at work.

What’s especially impressive about Nothing Stopped Sophie is how it manages to feel both epic and intimate. It covers many years in its subject’s life. And yet not a single word feels wasted. The book never gets bogged down in excessive detail. The child reader walks away feeling that they have been on a journey through Sophie’s life, appreciating that she achieved so much and never gave up. The backmatter (an author’s and illustrator’s note) adds more layers to an already intriguing title.

Picture books of the day: 4 excellent new companions to a quartet of Caldecott Honor titles

blue, illustrated and written by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, published by Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, ISBN: 978-1626720664. To be released: September 25, 2018.

The Five O’Clock Band, illustrated by Bryan Collier, written by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, published by Abrams, ISBN: 978-1419728365.

Grow Up, David!, illustrated and written by David Shannon, published by Blue Sky (an imprint of Scholastic), ISBN: 978-1338250978. ARC reviewed. To be released: August 28, 2018.

Interrupting Chicken and the Elephant of Surprise, illustrated and written by David Ezra Stein, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763688424. ARC reviewed. To be released: September 11, 2018.

When talking to kids about the Caldecott Award, I am tickled by how many love obsessing over the Gold and Silver medals they see on book covers. I always tell them that winning a Silver medal (meaning the book received a Caldecott Honor) is just as impressive (and difficult) as receiving the Gold. Hundreds of picture books vie for Caldecott love. To end up in that final round? Wow!

While preparing to serve on the 2017 Caldecott committee I went back to examine as many honor winners as possible. Four books I loved revisiting: Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s poetic and intricate tribute to various shades of green (2013 Honor), the vibrant picture book memoir Trombone Shorty (2016 Honor) illustrated by Bryan Collier and written by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, the hilarious and ever-popular David Shannon romp No, David! (1999 Honor), and David Ezra Stein’s deliriously funny tour de force Interrupting Chicken (2011 Honor).

Happily over the next few months sequels and/or companions to these modern classics will be released. And I’m happy to report that they impress beyond belief, broadening the worlds of their predecessors while also existing as stand alone titles. Two make the reader laugh hysterically, one continues to celebrate the music, food, and culture of a musician’s beloved city, and one breaks the reader’s heart (but in a beautiful fashion).

David Shannon has given us a number of David books over the years, and I have loved each and every one. Kids love them, too. Based on Shannon’s childhood drawings sent to him as an adult by his mother, these raucous titles show the mischievous David doing all kinds of naughty things while an unseen authority figure scolds him. The sparse words appear as child-like scrawls and David looks like a punk rock version of a demented Peanuts character. Grow Up, David! might be my favorite David book since No, David!. The character reprimanding David this time turns out to be his older brother. Throughout the book the siblings torment each other. The brother smooshes David in the face in one spread, while David ties his shoelaces together in another. What’s surprisingly moving about the book is how it captures the younger boy’s need for acceptance from his brother. Although you laugh or even cringe at the antics (big ewwww to the spit image, ha), you cannot help but but smile at the sweetness of the brother’s final compliment, and the way he calls him “Dave” with respect: little bro is growing up after all.

“Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Interrupting Chicken.” “Interrup–“”HEY THERE’S A NEW INTERRUPTING CHICKEN BOOK AND IT RAWKS!” David Ezra Stein’s ode to storytelling/narratives conventions continues in this hilarious sequel. For the uninitiated (and if you are one of the uninitiated I command you to head to your local library or bookstore and check out Interrupting Chicken), Stein introduces us to a Papa Rooster who tries in vain to tell a young chicken a bunch of classic fairy tales. And the young clucker always interrupts with very humorous observations or thoughts. In Interrupting Chicken and the Elephant of Surprise, the little one comes from school, excited that their teacher told them how every story has an “elephant of surprise.” The rooster says no no no, that it’s ELEMENT of surprise. Nope, the interrupting chicken, stands their ground and says “elephant.” Papa then tries to read three classic stories (The Ugly Duckling, Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid) only to have the chicken yell about an elephant surprisingly entering the tale. And it’s absolutely hilarious to see an elephant suddenly appear as a duckling, Rapunzel, and a mermaid. Stein’s artful illustrations show fun versatility here: the storybook scenes wonderfully spoof the kind of classy art found in fairy tale collections, and I love the child-like drawings when Interrupting Chicken creates their own book. Yes, it follows the formula of the first book, but adds just enough new elephants, I mean, elements to make everything feel fresh and alive.

WHERE Y’AT? Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews’ Trombone Shorty bubbled with that recurring phrase New Orleans musicians yell to each other on city streets. In that book, Andrews tells how he learned to play trombone (and how he received his nickname) in an exciting way that makes reading the memoir out loud a joy. Meanwhile, Bryan Collier’s experimental and vivid collages convey the excitement of a boy loving the sights, sounds, foods, and culture of Tremé. Trombone Shorty wants his music to be like tasty jumbo, with all kinds of elements in the mix. At the end of Trombone Shorty, Andrews mentions that he joined a group of young peers to form The 5 O’Clock Band. And in The 5 O’Clock Band, the author tells the true story of how he loved playing with his friends, but panics when he is late for a rehearsal. As he rushes to find his fellow musicians, he runs into several wise elders (local music legend Tuba Tremé, the great chef Queen Lola, and members of the Mardi Gras Indians) who teach him about Tradition, Love, and Dedication. Thanks to Andrews’ evocative language and Collier’s eye-catching art (with its many layers and inventiveness), the book serves as a loving tour of a neighborhood and a city that inspires this remarkable musician. New Orleans turns 300 this year. The 5 O’Clock Band offers a joyous look at what makes the place so special.

The first three books in this blog post can be call sequels. Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s blue is more of a companion to the concept book green. The books share the same look (the covers resemble each other thanks to the font, the use of lower case letters). Also, Seeger employs similar artistic techniques (acrylic paint on canvas; small peek-a-book die cuts throughout). Only two words appear on his each spread. Yet unlike green, blue tells a linear story that captures the complexity of the color blue which calls to mind things that are warm and comforting, but also sad and haunting. The emotional story at the heart of blue is of a boy and his dog. Seeger gives us snapshots of their lives as they grow up together. A page that says “baby blue” shows a puppy and baby snuggling, “ocean blue” a shot of them playing in the water, and so on. Using various shades of blue, Seeger conveys a wide variety of moods and emotions. Especially when the dog starts to age, and heartbreak becomes inevitable. blue never feels manipulative or cheap. It earns its tears honestly. And although the final moment borders on the predictable (a new puppy), the feeling that life goes on despite strong feelings of loss still packs a punch.


Picture book of the day: life is cosmic in The Stuff of Stars


The Stuff of Stars, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, written by Marion Dane Bauer, published by Candlewick Press, ISBN: 978-0763678838, ARC reviewed, to be released: September 4, 2018.

While looking at the abstract art in this idiosyncratic yet accessible celebration of the beginnings of, well, everything (the universe, the planets, life on earth, and you the reader), I kept thinking of the final trippy passages in Stanley Kubrick’s mind-bending 1968 big screen classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s the film geek in me. I kept hearing Richard Strauss’ music as I read Marion Dane Bauer’s poetic words. It’s the music geek in me. I am a strong believer in the notion of Picture Book as Cinema. The illustrator works as a grand cinematographer. In this regard, The Stuff of Stars also resembles an experimental film, with images that seem distancing at first, but then bring you in as you study them. Holmes fills each spread with layers and details that invite exploration and investigation. I see something new everything time I go through the book. Modern art lovers will love this. So will children who wonder about the all things cosmic and philosophical.

Ekua Holmes is an artist who constantly surprises. She received a 2016 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Illustrator Award and 2016 Caldecott Honor for the stirring Fannie Lou Hamer picture book biography Voice of Freedom. You discover in that book, especially in the backgrounds, an artist willing and striving to try new things. There’s a visual excitement to her work, you can feel the love she has for illustration. She then illustrated the terrific poetry collection Out of Wonder in which she created distinct spreads for a wide variety of poems by Kwame Alexander, Chris Corderley, and Margery Wentworth. In The Stuff of Stars, Holmes uses hand-marbled paper and collage techniques and then assembles her creations digitally. The innovative results fascinate.

I love how Holmes plays with Bauer’s text, comments on the words by seemingly contradicting them. Bauer starts at the very beginning of time with this work. She mentions how it all started with a speck. In ensuing pages Bauer will mention objects and things that did not exist yet, like “soaring hawks.” And yet, brilliantly Holmes sneaks in the outline of a hawk in a spread that otherwise seems to be celebrating abstract cosmic nothingness (later she does this with a giraffe and some butterflies, others). A flip of the page and wow, an explosion of swirling color when there’s the big BANG! (I love how Bauer’s words beg to read faster, with excitement). The breathtaking pages that follow with stars catching fire, some of them EXPLODING (on a spread that looks like the coolest fireworks display ever), are simply amazing. The use of color effective.

The Stuff of Stars ultimately is a “your place in the universe” book. And yet when humans enter the picture, they appear as drawings reminiscent of cave paintings. Late in the book we see another speck emerge and then some stylistically rendered human shapes floating across a page, and Bauer starts talking directly to the reader: “YOU burst into the world.” She then links the reader to the Earth’s past saying “You took a big breath/ of the same air/once breathed/by woolly mammoths” (I love Holmes’ mammoths). As Keanu Reeves would say: WHOA! The book ends with two human figures surrounded by and filled with stars staring at the cosmos. And it packs an emotional punch. Quite simply, one of the most unique and visually striking books of 2018. Totally epic picture book craft.