Picture books of the day: capturing the kid’s POV in The Big Bed, Captain’s Log: Snowbound, and The FUNeral

The Big Bed, illustrated by Tom Knight, written by Bunmi Laditan, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, ISBN: 978-0374301231.

Captain’s Log: Snowbound, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler, written by Erin Donne, published by Charlesbridge, ISBN: 978-1580898256, To Be Published: November 6, 2018.

The FUNeral, illustrated and written by Matt James, published by Groundwood, ISBN: 978-1554989089.

In the extremely funny The Big Bed, a girl who loves her daddy tries to convince him to slumber somewhere else at night because she wants to be her mother’s sole sleeping companion. Captain’s Log: Snowbound wittily introduces us to a boy, on a snow day, writing a report on Shackleton’s Antarctic journey and imagining that his house has become the ship (the Endurance) trapped in the ice. And the subversive, daring, and surprisingly moving The FUNeral shows a girl and her cousin frolicking and having fun while the adults mourn the passing of a loved one.

All three books successfully walk a tightrope. They have sophisticated ideas and an adult sensibility. And yet all the illustrators and writers of each still manage to capture the POVs of their child protagonists. Yes, for example, the adults will laugh as the heroine of The Big Bed turns her simple request into a rather involved presentation complete with easel and borderline corporate speak (V.I.P. becomes Very Important Piggyback ride giver). And yet Laditan makes sure child-like concerns pepper the girl’s persuasive talk. The girl throws in references to dad’s playful wrestling and horsie rides. And Laditan is not afraid to toss in a gross potty joke to elicit laughs from the younger set. Meanwhile, illustrator Tom Knight creates characters with amusing facial expressions (I love the dad’s “huhn?” look what he’s caught with a mouthful of foaming toothpaste) and body language (just look at the way the girl gives dad the side-eye when he’s trying to share a cuddling space on the couch with mom). The book grows funnier and funnier as it unfolds. When she says “Daddy, I see you. I hear you.” and then reveals her “satisfactory” and “generous” solution (dad can sleep on a cot), kids and adults cannot help but chuckle at her audacity.

Captain’s Log Snowbound emerges as one of the more clever funny picture books of the year. Adults who know of Shackleton will find author Erin Donne’s approach to the story intriguing. Meanwhile, children who have no idea who the heck Shackleton was will end up learning about the famed explorer. This is one of those “learning can be fun” books that actually is indeed quite fun. Children (well, at least children who live in wintry parts of the globe) will relate to the premise. A boy and his family end up stuck inside on a snow day (this book would make a good double feature with Matthew Cordell’s recent King Alice). He has a school report due on Shackleton and starts imaginatively comparing their plight to those endured by the Endurance crew. Illustrator Jeffrey Ebbeler has a blast making the slightly askew house look like the ship, and throws in vintage-style drawings of the historical event. The narrative also offers a fun arc as the cabin fever grows and the behavior becomes wilder. Kids and adults will recognize the behavior, and cheer when things look they will finally thaw out. An extra plus is the back matter. We see the boy’s school report that serves up all kinds of Shackleton facts.

A little more niche-y (at least on the surface; those who dig in will discover a surprisingly universal story) is Matt James’ The FUNeral in which young Norma discovers that her mother’s great-uncle Frank has just died. They must attend his service. In my recent review of Antje Damm’s idiosyncratic yet lovely The Visitor I mentioned how some picture books remind me of offbeat little short animated films. The FUNeral falls into that category. James’ acrylic and ink (on masonite) illustrations are experimental and slightly disorientating. The girl rides in a car that looks like a paper cut-out for example. And yet she behaves in a way that is very kid-like. She keeps rolling the window up and down, up and down, letting the wind whip her hair. When she arrives at the funeral, she meets up with her cousin Ray. We see the entire ceremony through their eyes (James’ evocative writing offers a complete sensory experience, like when Norma becomes restless and smells the insides of her mother’s purse). Some people might find the notion of children slipping outside during such a somber ceremony and playing and enjoying themselves distasteful. However, this happens. In real life. That’s what young children do. One of the many things I admire about Matt James’ work is how it zeroes in on an experience I have never seen depicted in a children’s picture book. And he does so beautifully. When Norma says that her great-great uncle Frank would have liked his funeral you cannot help but agree with her.

 

 

 

Picture books of the day: examining fear in Are You Scared, Darth Vader and The Visitor

Are You Scared, Darth Vader?, illustrated and written by Adam Rex, published by Disney/Lucasfilm Press, ISBN: 978-1484704974.

The Visitor, illustrated and written by Antje Damm, published by Gecko Press, ISBN:978-1776571888.

One thing I enjoy doing when I look at new picture books is finding connections between two seemingly unrelated titles. And one thing I enjoy about having an independently run blog where I can blah blah blah about things that interest me is writing about these connections. Case in point. Let’s look at Are You Scared, Darth Vader?, in which the supremely funny Adam Rex puts the Star Wars villain through the meta fiction paces and plops him in a scenario reminiscent of both Mo Willems’ We Are in a Book! and the Sesame Street classic There’s a Monster at the End of This Book! (among others). On the surface it cannot seem more different from Antje Damm’s warmly idiosyncratic The Visitor, about a reclusive fearful woman (made it seems out of paper) whose world topples upside down when a paper airplane floats into her gray, miserable house from the scary outside world.

Darth Vader of course is a tie-in to one of the most successful and beloved movie franchises of all time, starring a character known and feared by millions of moviegoers. Meanwhile, The Visitor also feels cinematic, but reminds me of one of those strange, artfully rendered, slightly underground animated shorts sometimes in the running in the Best Animated Short Oscar category. Darth has a major publishing company backing it, while Visitor comes to US readers as an import from the vital yet relatively small Gecko Press.

And yet both books emerge as witty, effective looks at fear, beautifully using shadows and color (or lack of color) to convey mood and atmosphere. Both star an adult character struggling with vulnerability at some point in the story. And both are extremely rewarding picture book experiences.

As piles of picture books come my way in any given year, I encounter many featuring popular characters: superheroes, Disney protagonists, princesses, critters in a certain paw patrol, and so on. Although many of them do not stand out for me as particularly inspired, they serve a purpose. They get kids into reading. Every once in a while though a tie-in will come along that offers an inventive, even subversive spin. Darth Vader pops out as one of those books. The premise is simple: an unseen narrator (words represented in a bold yellow font) keeps trying to antagonize a somber Vader who remains unshaken, and yet is obviously extremely melancholy. Meanwhile, a group of pint-sized monsters (a wolfman, a vampire, a witch) appear one by one to scare the dastardly Vader. He amusingly brushes off their attempts. In a great touch, Rex draws Vader and the backgrounds in a realistic style, while the monsters possess a more cartoonish look. Sure, the more the reader knows about Vader the better. Reading his lines with a James Earl Jones voice of course is essential. And Star Wars references pepper Vader’s responses. In one brilliant, darkly funny moment, the narrator warns Vader that the witch can curse him. We flip the page to discover him standing all alone (background and supporting cast momentarily gone) saying “I am already cursed.” It all leads to a surprise ending that I won’t spoil that does indeed put Vader in panic mode. By that point Vader already has jumped to the list of great funny 2018 books, skillfully illustrated, with many a great page turn.

In terms of plotting, The Visitor follows the reverse pattern of Vader. At the start of the story, we already find the skittish Elise in a fearful state. She sits at her table, alone, and the narrator tells us quite bluntly that her fears include spiders, people, and even trees. Antje Damm creates a diorama-like world for this sad character. Elise resides in a real yet stylized three-dimensional space. Damm isn’t afraid to make the place look colorless and bleak. Suddenly a blue paper airplane flies into Elise’s neat and orderly space and Elise freaks out, becoming too scared to sleep. Damm shows us what Elise fears: that even more airplanes will come soaring into her house. Visually, the book rises to a whole other level of inventiveness when a child comes the next day to claim his plane. He brings bright, warm colors with him. At first Elise finds him unwelcome, but soon his youthful curiosity and energy win her over, and the colors start filling the room. It’s absolutely lovely, and it all leads to a great final moment that feels reassuring and hopeful. Elise may even have the strength at this point to calm Vader who has completely lost his composure at the end of his book.

 

Picture book of the day: the coziness of A Home in the Barn

A Home in the Barn, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, written by Margaret Wise Brown, published by Harper (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0066237879.

In an illustrator’s note at the end of this cozy yet rollicking winter bedtime story, the legendary Jerry Pinkney talks about how he wanted the blustery wind and the crowded red barn to feel like genuine supporting characters. And he succeeds beautifully. While exploring his vivid illustrations (done in pencil, watercolors, gouache, and pastel), the reader can feel and hear the gusts of wind blowing the trees to their sides, whistling through the horses’ manes, and twirling the leaves in the air. After a charming title page with a cow peeking through barn’s door, the reader turns the page to encounter a striking exterior view of the large barn that plays an integral part of the tale. The late great Margaret Wise Brown (she of Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny fame) sets the tone with some quick rhyming text: “Here is the barn/Hear the wind rattle/Open the door/And see all the cattle.” All effective picture books invite eager page turns. We cannot wait to flip the page and see who and what is inside this inviting barn. Flip! And we see the cattle…as well as a cat, some chickens, goats (more animals will fill the barn in pages to come). Brown then says “Outside in the cold/Hear the wind rattle/Stay in the barn/Keep warm with the cattle.” Yes, very inviting, but what I love about Pinkney’s work here is he avoids being overly cute. The illustrations could have been saccharine here, could have gone the anthropomorphic route or given us completely idyllic smiling animals in an antiseptic environment. But Pinkney’s creatures look and behave like real farm animals. You can hear them, you can smell them, but yes, you still want to hang out with them.

The rest of the book takes us outside the barn showing more animals (squeaking mice, the aforementioned horses) seeking shelter and then back inside the barn where the animals gather. Brown’s text goes from simple poetry to succinct prose as the critters accumulate. Pigs cuddle, cats snooze, and bats come back after a long night swooping. Although the book seems simple and not exactly plot-driven, a lot happens. A cow gifts birth. A bull has a nightmare. A pony startles the calves (love the hand lettering for the words representing animal sounds). A farmer does his chores. Meanwhile, the whooshing snow piles up outside.

It all leads to a gorgeous wordless double page spread that shows the wide variety of animals all snuggling with each other to keep warm. Pinkney has them facing the reader, making eye contact. This previously unpublished story feels like a timeless classic thanks to a loving design and the work of a great illustrator at the top of his game. This works as a farm story, a bedtime romp, and as a first-rate storytime offering.

 

 

Picture book of the day: revisiting Yuyi Morales’ 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.

On June 18th I wrote about seeing Yuyi Morales’ beautiful and highly personal picture book memoir Dreamers (a Spanish edition called Soñadores is also available) for the very first time. I quickly looked at the complete edition at a conference, and was given a sample edition that included breathtaking snippets (plus Morales’ author’s note) from the work. Feeling emotionally overwhelmed, I enthusiastically wrote up a sneak preview of the title. Thanks to the kind people at Holiday House, an ARC containing the entire work landed in my hands. Now that the official release date is here, I want to sing the book’s praises once again.

My initial blog entry discussed what I consider special about the book. I have looked at it several times over the past few months and let me tell you, I see something new and different every time. Little touches in the warmly surreal art that capture both my heart and imagination. As mother and child make their journey from Mexico to San Francisco, Yuyi fills the pages with imagery that pulls in the reader: an adorable little skeleton carrying Officer Buckle and Gloria, a howling canine accompanying the words “and to make our voices heard!,” the butterflies, the birds, the swirls of colors (just look at that moment when the librarian magically hands the baby the library card), so many others. The joy is palpable. You see worlds opening up for a mother and child both learning a new language in a strange new place. You see a mother becoming an artist. You see an imaginative guitar-carrying child ready to fly to the moon.

Yes, the librarian in me of course zeroes in on the library sequence. Like I said in my first blog entry about the book this might be the most effective “how a library changed an author’s life” title I have encountered. Yet the scenes leading up to the epic (first overwhelming, then life-changing in the best most positive way) library visit also pack a wallop. On the title page, we see a person (the mother as a child) dreaming, pencil nearby, her most recent artistic endeavors scribbled on pages. A flip of the page and Morales establishes the loving bond between mother and her child (the child she once dreamed of) who flies through air and into her arms (surrounding them: the words “Amor-Love-Amor,” flowers and leaves, a hand holding a pencil–a meta touch, love the textures of the background).

The next few spreads are packed with memorable sights as the barefoot mother, wearing a skirt that resembles a colorful bunch of leaves (they also look like multi-colored flames), walks with her son across a bridge and into a new land. Her green backpack contains “gifts” like the aforementioned skeleton and dog, a guitar, a pencil, and others. Look at that surreal terrain. Every depicted object must mean something to Morales. We are being invited into her world, her mindset, her experience. When the mother and child see their new city, an impossibly full moon fills the sky as do bats and as does fog. The next few spreads show stress and complications of being an immigrant: not understanding the words and rules, making mistakes, feeling disoriented (thankfully the library comes along to give them confidence). Always a surrealist, Morales gives each illustration a dreamy, off-kilter edge. However, her striking work builds an emotional connection between reader and the figures on the page. You care about them. And you cheer for them as they transcend and triumph.

Dreamers/Soñadores is a book above love. A love between mother and child. A love for creating art. A love for books. A love for language. A love for libraries. In times so troubling and heartbreaking, Morales gives the reader a book filled with hope. I have read the book several times and still the final words lift my heart every time: “We are stories. We are two languages. We are lucha. We are resilience. We are hope. WE are dreamers, soñadores of the world. We are Love Amor Love.”

Beautiful, just beautiful.