Picture book of the day: celebrating the 200th anniversary of a classic with Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein, illustrated by Júlia Sarda, written by Linda Bailey, published by Tundra, ISBN: 978-1770495593.

Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein turns 200 this year, and this properly creepy and goth picture book biography emerges as a perfect way to introduce young readers to the 18-year-old author who created it. I pretty much love everything about this account: the layout, the design, the book’s dimensions (tall, like the monster), and of course the art and writing. Júlia Sarda’s brilliant, slightly macabre (but not overly so) art captures the eye right at the very start, before the title page, with a drawing of the rather-pale people at the center of this true story, namely Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and their pals. Frankenstein’s monster appears as well, along with some ravens and other creatures. Page after page, Sarda serves up vivid, experimental imagery that startles and haunts: Mary lying on her bed as if positioned in a coffin, stormy skies with clouds shaped like gargoyles and reptilian monsters, hair and trees flying in gusts of wind (look at that motion). And yet, the spookiness in these illustrations also feels playful with the wide-eyed Mary fascinated with ghost stories and unsettling poems meant to make the audience squirm. This playfulness reaches a fever pitch when Sarda draws a frog being brought back to life with a surge of electricity (seriously, she deserves a special prize for her rendering of that reanimated frog).

Meanwhile, Linda Bailey’s text has an interactive immediacy to it that captivates the reader. She asks questions throughout, involving the audience. She skillfully employs the present tense, and this grabs you and never lets go. “Here is Mary. She’s a dreamer. The kind of girl who wanders alone, who stares at clouds, who imagines things that never were.” Mary Shelley may have passed away a long time ago, but Bailey brings her back to life with this jolt in her prose. Mary suddenly feels alive again. And Bailey does a great job explaining the conditions that led to the creation of Frankenstein: daydreams, visions, wild imagination. It all feels like a fever dream, especially thanks to a mesmerizing image of the Frankenstein monster watching over Mary as she sits up suddenly in bed filled with inspiration. And Sarda’s illustrations do a remarkable job conveying the excitement of this literary journey. Bailey’s excellent afterword is an added plus to an already impressive title. Beautifully done.

Picture book of the day: IDEA! check out Matthew Cordell’s rollicking King Alice

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King Alice, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, published by Feiwel and Friends, ISBN: 978-1250047496, ARC reviewed, to be released: September 25, 2018.

There’s a detail I love in Matthew Cordell’s absolutely hilarious King Alice, about an exhausted father trying to keep up with his imaginative, rambunctious, and demanding (but lovable) daughter on what appears to be the umpteenth snow day in a row. Whenever the titular character thinks of something new to do she doesn’t say “Oh, I have an idea,” she yells “Idea!” and then proceeds to reveal the new plan. This may seem strangely specific to praise, but hey in comedy, timing is everything. And in picture book comedy, the way the writer words things matters. The succinct way Alice says “Idea!’ says everything about her character: she’s confident, blunt, and you better go along with her IDEA. But most of all: it’s funny…every time she says it.

King Alice sweeps the reader through an aforementioned snow day from early dawn to a much needed bedtime, from breakfast to lunch to dinner. The royal Alice orders her most put upon subject (her pop) about while mom and baby sibling watch with amusement (love how the pet cat reacts to the various interactions). Cordell gets a lot of comic mileage with the characters’ body language, especially the father’s. Anyone who has spent a long amount of time with a particularly energetic kid will relate. And kids will laugh because, well, it’s fun to watch grownups in silly situations designed by kids. After King Alice proposes two IDEAS that didn’t exactly work out in the father’s eyes (making super-sparkly strawberry muffins, and making dad super-duper pretty again), Alice decides to write a book. And it turns out hilarious, with Cordell drawing in Alice’s manic child-like style, with crayons even.

Cordell received the 2018 Caldecott Award for the modern picture book classic Wolf in the Snow. And apart from having snow play a major role in the plot, King Alice could not be more different in terms of tone. Yes, Cordell fills the pages with his trademark expressive pen and ink, watercolor (and from the author’s note “whatever colored pencils and markers Matthew Cordell could find from his kids’ stash of art supplies”) illustrations. And yes, ultimately it’s a story about the warmth of family. Yet Wolf has a rather melancholy tone, and is effectively mostly wordless.

Despite a moment late in the story during which Alice reflects about going too far with one of her antics and then making things right again, Alice focuses on delivering laughs. Cordell’s use of language delights as much as his drawings. Just check out Alice’s apology to her pop after he finally snaps and sends her to Time Out: “I’m so, so, so, so, so sorry I bonked you with my unicorn, Daddy. You are funny and nice and you draw good and smell good and are neat and nice and will you still play with me now, Daddy?” I love everything about this sentence: the 5 “so”s, 2 “nice”s, the compliments, and then the plea to play once again.

Cordell is quite simply one of the funniest illustrators working today. You can see his playful sense of humor in the books he has illustrated for other authors. Books like Peter Hermann’s If the S in the Moose Comes Loose, Audrey Vernick’s Bob, Not Bob, and in many of his other solo efforts (Trouble Gum, hello! hello!), among others (he’s thankfully prolific). With King Alice he deftly combines word and image for maximum comical effect.

Picture book of the day: This Is My Eye invites readers to look around them

This Is My Eye: A New York Story, pictures and text by Neela Vaswani, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763676162. ARC reviewed. To be released: August 14, 2018. 

Many books for young readers instruct the audience to look at the world around them, to examine their surroundings. The vibrant new photographic essay This Is My Eye, with its wondrous views of urban beauty, makes one of the strongest cases for people to do so. And while we are at it, the book suggests, why not take some cool photographs? The author’s note states that she snapped more than half of the photographs on a smartphone (the others on a “refurbished digital SLR camera”). So reader, you can do this too! Of course it takes a lot of practice to rise to the level of Vaswani. (Quick aside: after an author visit, I asked a professional photographer if she could take a photo of me and the author on my phone. I noticed a remarkable difference in the photo she took–the lighting, the composition–than the ones I take. But I think with a little practice perhaps I could improve. Books like This Is My Eye inspire readers to experiment and sharpen their skills.)

Recently there have been some stream-of-conscious books for kids that detail the small things that happen during, say, a walk. Random occurrences. Objects encountered. Poetic thoughts while on the trek. And many of these books have more of an adult sensibility. One of the many strengths of This Is My Eye is we see things through a child’s eyes. Inspired by her photographer dad, whom we first see in a beautifully composed shot holding his impressive camera to his eye while standing in front of a metallic frame, a girl describes the joy she feels using her smartphone. I love the next photograph of her father: his camera zeroed in on the reader, like he’s taking a photo of us. A flip of the page introduces the child, camera covering one eye, aiming the camera at us, her uncovered eye looking curious. “This is what I see,” the spare text informs us. She sees us. We see her.

What follows are a bunch of snapshots, some experimental, some direct, all intriguing. Two abstract blurry swirling images accompany the line “When I spin, everything blurs.” Suddenly we are in the child’s shoes, seeing things as her camera sees them. Ensuing photographs capture a windy day, and a look up at the sky (in beautiful black and white). We stare into puddles serving as mirrors of their surroundings, examine wall graffiti that tells stories, and so on. What emerges is a charming portrait of a child realizing that “stories are everywhere.” Other great child-friendly POVs include her looking at her hand while lying on the grass (when she flips over to touch the ground we see her hand touching a bunch of clovers), at a rose through a fence, or at her approaching grandmother through a peephole. These changes in perspective add variety to the imagery. We discover that anything could make a really cool photo: an overhead shot of people in a park, or a picture of the back of a person’s head when the person has a really distinct hairstyle. Shapes, patterns, a dog rolling over on the grass, pigeons resting on a statue.

Although the book celebrates New York City, Vaswani’s enthusiasm for the medium makes the book feel universal. Regardless of whether you live in another big city or perhaps in a small rural village or in a suburban locale, stories surround you, inviting you to take part and perhaps tell some new ones of your own.

 

Storytime Success Story: Play This Book brings on the music

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Play This Book, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman and written by Jessica Young, published by Bloomsbury, ISBN:978-1681195063.

I have encountered several titles recently that strive to capture interactive feel of Hervé Tullet’s best work (for example, Press Here). Books that encourage the reader to physically interact with the pages within: touching, tapping, shaking them. And one of the very best is Play This Book, which offers readers the chance to treat the book like a guitar, drums, maracas, saxophone, among other instruments. The sturdy pages invite the most enthusiastic pint-sized musicians to have a blast. Wiseman’s vibrant, very child-friendly (and child-like) illustrations immediately bring young readers in as Young’s sing-songy simple rhymes stir up the excitement of putting on a musical show. She uses the collective “we” to show we are all in this together, forming an impromptu band. When we flip the page and see a pink guitar, Young slips into the “you” pronoun saying “You can rock on the guitar” and then instructs the reader to strum the instrument with “your thumb.” And then there’s a sound effect: STRUM, STRUM, STRUM. And then we continue through the other instruments (which also include our happy dancing, stomping feet).

Now of course this would work as a one on one title. However, I can happily say that this works with large groups too. I touch the book and have the children mime strumming the guitar, or tinking and tunking the piano keys. Asking the kids if they love music and love the various instruments they see adds another layer of fun to reading it out loud to a group. I also like how the book needs to be turned vertically for the saxophone page; this adds a nice visual twist. It’s fun asking children “am I holding the book correctly?” when getting to this page. Throughout we see a variety of children playing the instruments in question. And they look supercool, like they’re ready for the School of Rock.

Play This Book is a rowdy addition to storytimes about music. It reaches new heights of delight when we get to the cymbals page. In order to do the CRAAAAASH of the cymbals, we must close and open the book dramatically. The book ends with bows and bravos. All well-deserved.