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.