Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy is truly a publishing event

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy, created by poet Tony Medina & 13 Artists, published by Penny Candy Books, ISBN: 978-0998799940.

Just look at the illustrators involved with this project. Listed in the order found on the back of the book: Floyd Cooper. Cozbi A. Cabrera. Skip Hill. Tiffany McKnight. Robert Liu-Trujillo. Keith Mallett. Shawn K. Alexander. Kesha Bruce. Brianna McCarthy. R. Gregory Christie. Ekua Holmes. Javaka Steptoe. Chandra Cox. 13 of the very best artists working in the field today. The brilliant Tony Medina has penned 13 poems (each written in the tanka form: 31 syllables over 5 lines) about black boys, and each poem is accompanied by a piece of art that beautifully captures the moods of Medina’s creations.

Cooper’s warm portrait of a smiling little boy (love the bowtie) in the arms of his parents fits the coziness of “Anacostia Angel” for example. Cabrera brings a quiet beauty to “Little Mister May” which shows a kid proudly standing in a suit his Granny made for him so he looks nice for church. Tiffany McKnight brings a burst of fun retro ’70s color to “The Charmer” about a boy whose smile charms girls and makes the other boys jealous. Each turn of the page offers a surprising new image. Some somber (Liu-Trujillo’s “One-Way Ticket” shows a solemn boy carrying groceries while Medina writes of financial hardship), some abstract (Kesha Bruce’s quilt-like “Do Not Enter”), and some surreal and dream-like (R. Gregory Christie’s figure of a giant-sized boy trying in vain to catch a bus in “Athlete’s Broke Bus Blues”).

Those studying illustrations will find a lot to fest on here. Just compare the collages created by Ekua Holmes (“Brothers Gonna Work It Out”) and Javaka Steptoe (“Cat at the Curb”): the former bursting with color, the latter offering a more nocturnal scene (love the cat looking straight at the reader). All the while Medina serves up striking image after striking image with his words. The “Dreadlock halo crown” of the “Street Corner Prophet” (haunting art from Brianna McCarthy), the “South east Benin mask/Face like a road map of kin” in “Images of Kin” (wow, look at how illustrator Skip Hall mixes the past and the contemporary in the art), and the “We preachers’ brothers/Grew up crawlin’ under pews” in “My Soul to Keep” (Shawn K. Alexander’s drawing calls to mind mosaics). Chandra Cox serves up a whimsical image of a boy tossing his space age science project in the air (“Givin’ Back to the Community”), while Keith Mallet evokes a hot summer day in his painting accompanying “Lazy Hazy Daze.”

The poems and the illustrations work together to create a one-of-a-kind book that is truly one of 2018’s very best.



Four fun new storytime books: from sounds to dump trucks, from stars to dragons

Dig, Dump, Roll, illustrated by Brian Lovelock, written by Sally Sutton, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536203912.

So Many Sounds, illustrated by Andy J. Miller, written by Tim McCanna, published by Abrams Appleseed, ISBN: 978-1419731563.

Star in the Jar, illustrated by Sarah Massini, written by Sam Hay, published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, ISBN: 978-1492662204.

There’s a Dragon in Your Book, illustrated by Greg Abbott, written by Tom Fletcher, published by Random House, ISBN: 978-1524766382.

I have a regular drop-in preschool storytime that meets pretty much all year (we take a two week break at the end of December). So I am constantly looking for fun, interactive picture books that will engage a fairly large group of kids and their grown-ups. I have been doing this program since 2002 and the favorites have accumulated over the years. It’s still fun to discover fresh new titles that will add a spark to the program. And recently a vibrant quartet arrived in my office–lovely books that beg to be read to an appreciative group of enthusiastic children.

Dig, Dump, Roll comes roaring, chugging, and rumbling along to thrill pint-sized construction vehicle fans (hint: most kids). Illustrator Brian Lovelock and author Sally Sutton have teamed up before on three must-have titles (Roadwork, Demolition, Construction) that noisily depict construction crews working together to create something new (a road, a playground, a sparkling new library respectively). With Dig they throw in a fun spin: they make the book a guessing game. They throw in their trademark sound effects and then ask “What’s at work?” and then say “Here’s a clue” and then give readers/listeners a clue about which construction vehicle will appear on the next page. Lovelock gives the audience a little glimpse of the bulldozer or digger or dump truck. Believe me, the kids love shouting out the answers. Sutton’s language is creative and bouncy; Lovelock makes sure the construction crew is a diverse one.

So Many Sounds fills a need. I am often asked for books that feature every day sounds. This snappy delight fulfills that request and then some. Deftly employing quick, zesty rhymes, author Tim McCanna walks readers through one kid’s day, pointing out the various sounds that we all take for granted: “Sneakers stamp, and classrooms bustle. Pencils scratch, and papers rustle.” Although some of the noises are loud (on a field trip the bus drives by a noisy construction site, for example), many we have to listen carefully for to actually hear. Andy J. Miller’s stylized comical illustrations do a great job capturing the rumpus, showing explosive lines popping out of a honking taxi for example. It’s striking how many variations McCanna finds here: music, chattering, a thunderstorm, and then the relative serenity of a bedtime routine.

Star in a Jar is the quiet one in this group. Some books ask to be read in an almost hushed, unhurried tone, casting a spell on the audience.  Star is one such book. Author Sam Hay’s beautifully written book teams up perfectly with Grace Lin’s recent, absolutely magical A Big Mooncake for Little Star as a starry-eyed double feature. The premise impresses with its emotional immediacy and deceptive simplicity: a little boy who loves gathering treasure discovers a star. His older sister convinces him that he must try to find its relative owner, a search that proves fruitless. He decides to keep the star, and takes it everywhere (one great touch that makes the kids laugh: he even takes the star to the movies). A sense of melancholy fills the story when the children discover that a.) the captured star now looks unhappy (I love how illustrator Sarah Massini conveys the star’s sadness–one of its points starts to disappear) and b.)  that the stars have formed a message in the night-time sky (“Lost one small star”). How will the children get the little star back up to the sky? The kids I read this to were mesmerized and couldn’t wait to hear the answer. I won’t spoil, but let’s just say Hay and Massini serve up a sweet, artfully handled resolution that satisfies and makes kids say “yay!”.

There’s a Dragon in Your Book soars onto shelves as another meta book that invites children to directly interact (in very creative ways) with its protagonist. A delightful follow-up to the equally engaging There’s a Monster in Your Book, Dragon grabs the audience right on the title page when we see a purple spotted egg cracking. A flip of the page and writer





Picture book of the day: the evocative Night Job takes readers along on the night shift

Night Job, illustrated by G. Brian Karas, written by Karen Hesse, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763662387.

In its own serene way, Night Job takes something mundane (a boy joining his custodian father on the night shift, cleaning a school) and makes the whole situation feel atmospheric and memorable. Karen Hesse’s evocative prose turns their journey on motorcycle from home to work into a sensory experience. We can hear the zoom of the motorcycle, and smell the air that stinks of old fish (they live near water) and then the lilacs surrounding the school. I love the details she throws in, like dad’s large ring of keys “as big as the rising moon.” And the surreal moment when the school sighs and whispers, beckoning them inside. Night Job isn’t meant to be scary or unsettling (it’s comforting and humane in fact), but the book feels moody and mysterious nonetheless. As dad and son move from room to room, from gym to hallway, from cafeteria to library, they seem like the only two people awake in the world. Well, except for the fact that they listen on a radio to a baseball game being “played miles away.” Many kids might regard this scenario as something they wish they could experience: having the whole school almost entirely to themselves after dark. The father-son bond is strong as they sweep and scrub, and then enjoy a break unwrapping and then chewing their tasty egg salad sandwiches. Since I consider the Newbery-winning Hesse a writer primarily concerned with social issues, I find myself wondering about the characters’ situation. Does the boy go with pop out of necessity (single father cannot afford child care?) or is it a simple case of the father wanting to show the kid what he does for a living? Or something else entirely? This would make a great discussion starter.

I consider the quietly witty illustrator G. Brian Karas a cozy artist. But cozy without being overly precious or saccharine. He is great at capturing the warm feelings between characters, and in Night Job he excels at conveying the love between father and child. Deftly using mixed media to show them under night-time skies or working in shadows, Karas serves up some of his very best work here. I equate quality picture book illustration with expert cinematography, and Night Job emerges as a perfect example of this. Just go from spread to spread and look at how Karas depicts light. The gym scene especially rises as an example of this, plus a later moment when, traveling home after a long night’s work, they see a startled deer in the headlight of the motorcycle.

Thanks to the striking use of language and the impressive illustrations, Night Job makes readers feel as if they have worked the night shift with these two characters. Lovely and illuminating.


Picture book of the day: Grace Lin serves up a delicious Big Mooncake for Little Star

A Big Mooncake for Little Star, illustrated and written by Grace Lin, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316404488.

Wow, what a cosmic delight A Big Mooncake for Little Star is. In a quick’s author note, Grace Lin writes how she wanted to create a tale that celebrates the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, while giving the story a mythological feel. So Lin gives young readers a deliciously surreal night-time romp that feels like a classic long lost Chinese folktale. Set against black backgrounds, the book introduces us right away (on the endpapers) to a little girl named Little Star, who wears striking star-covered pajamas. She helps her Mama (wearing similar PJs) make a giant mooncake (the traditional food enjoyed during the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival) that indeed looks scrumptious. After the mother places the moon in the sky, she reminds her daughter not to touch the Big Mooncake until instructed. Little Star nods her head as she prepares for bed. I love the coziness Lin gives Little Star’s bedtime ritual (brushing her teeth, washing her face, and reading her stuffed bunny a book, all in full moon-shaped circular drawings).

Of course Little Star won’t be able to resist taking a nibble from the moon. Lin serves up a very effective page turn showing Little Star sleeping on one page–FLIP!–and then, body in the same position, her eyes opening as she wakes up in the middle of the night. There’s a beautifully double page spread that follows: we see on the bottom half of the verso page the top half of Little Star’s face as she thinks of that giant mooncake (the bottom 3/4 of the treat seen on the top part of recto page). Will Little Star resist temptation? Or will she be mischievous? Hey, look at the cover of the book. Heck yeah she’s gonna partake of that mooncake. We then see Little Star tiptoe with a “Pat pat pat” off the page to sneak a bite of the mooncake.

This hungry little girl, night after night, keeps sneaking out of bed, unable to stop taking bites. “Mmmmm, yum,” Lin writes in bouncy text perfect for story time. I love the images of Little Star floating through the night-time sky, back and forth to her yummy destination. It all leads to a glorious and playful double page spread that shows Little Star’s nibbles causing the various stages of the moon, leaving only a smattering of twinkling crumbs. Is Mama upset? Not in this comforting world. Mother and child head back to their kitchen where they make another mooncake. And the cycle begins again.

Enchanting and lovely, Grace Lin’s latest will make little ones go “whoa” in between appreciative giggles.