Picture book of the day: the sci fi wordless wonders of Another and Field Trip to the Moon

Another, illustrated and conceived by Christian Robinson, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), ISBN: 978-1534421677.

Field Trip to the Moon, illustrated and conceived by John Hare, published by Margaret Ferguson Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823442539. Release date: May 14, 2019.

Wormholes. Parallel universes. Space travel. Interacting with interstellar beings. Christian Robinson and John Hare inject some sci fi weirdness into their latest offerings and do so with striking images and no words. Successfully and playfully tapping into childhood wonder, both picture book creators take readers on cosmic journeys that make the reader say “whoa”.

Christian Robinson has deservedly earned acclaim and major awards (two Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honors, a Caldecott Honor, among them) for books he has illustrated for others. Another is his first solo effort, and it’s one that encourages and invites further investigation after an initial read. The compact story of a girl and her cat entering another dimension after crawling through a wormhole sustains a sense of mystery throughout. Robinson’s distinct, signature artistic style (paint and collage, edited digitally) works beautifully here; he fills each spread with warmth and joy. The tale begins at night with our heroine sleeping and her pet cat, bearing a red collar, wide awake. We see a red mouse (that turns out to be a cat toy). A flip of the page and suddenly there’s the wormhole that interests the feline.

Another page flip and we see another cat, this one wearing a blue collar, peering into the room from the wormhole. This visitor snatches the mouse toy and then slips back into the wormhole, prompting the girl’s cat to follow. The child wakes up and bravely pursues her pet. Robinson proves with these opening scenes that he has mastered the art of the page turn, so crucial in effective picture book storytelling. He also uses spare backgrounds effectively, and I love how his colorful circles pop off the page. When she enters the wormhole, we get one of my favorite images of the year so far: a gravity-defying view of the girl with her beaded hair floating up into the air. What the girl discovers on the other side is a wonder to behold: she finds her doppelgänger, and sees a diverse group of children (and their doppelgängers) playing and having a blast. There is no fear or dread in anything of this–only love and friendship. She smiles contentedly in every charming illustration, interacts with her double, happily witnesses her cat’s doppelgänger returning her pet’s mouse toy, and then returns to her room to sleep. But Robinson throws in one last little twist that keeps the questions coming. This is the strongest picture book co-starring a wormhole since Vera Brosgol’s Caldecott Honor winner Leave Me Alone!.

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 expedition to the Moon. There are a number of non-fiction books about the topic planned for 2019. And there’s also the whimsical fictional picture book Field Trip to the Moon, which makes a great companion piece to Jon Agee’s hilarious It’s Only Stanley and Life on Mars (and quite possibly Dean Robbins’ and Sean Rubin’s upcoming non-fiction picture book The Artist Who Painted the Moon, which I admit I haven’t seen yet). Field Trip is both melancholy and magical, serving up a possibly nightmare situation (a girl left behind on the moon) but then making the scenario wondrous and funny. With his evocative acrylic paintings, Hare introduces us to an introverted child who keeps herself removed from her classmates. She carries a drawing pad and some crayons. The artistically minded child seems content just to stop, lean against a hill, look at faraway Earth and draw it. After the girl wakes up from a nap, she sees the interstellar school bus flying away, leaving her behind. Hare effectively employs graphic novel style panels during this sequence. He also does wonders with the colors black and sandy gray, and with shadows–the art has a cool dusty 3D look.

Instead of wallowing, she returns to her drawing, and then Hare throws in an amusing twist. She does not know that a bunch of gray friendly-looking one-eyed moon creatures have appeared behind her. I love the moment when she looks at the reader (her face hidden by the helmet–but we can only imagine her look of surprise) when she finally senses their presence. The book turns into a surreal romp with the girl, undaunted and not scared, sharing her crayons with the creatures. They, in turn, draw on EACH OTHER! and then the moon rocks. Ah, the healing communal power of creating art (although one senses isolation as the creatures bond with each other over their drawings and the child stands apart). After the bus returns and after a warm embrace between caregiver and child, Hare throws in a slyly funny moment: the adult orders the girl to clean up the crayon markings made by the moon creatures (who have fled) thinking she created them. Hare does an excellent job with body language. In a delightful touch, when the girl waves goodbye to creatures, we see them popping up out of the sand, each clutching a crayon. Then a flip of the page and we see the girl on the bus, helmet removed for the first time, serenely drawing one of the creatures. Field Trip to the Moon serves up a sense of adventure and some laughs. What strikes me about the book though is its touching portrayal of a solitary child, last seen happily creating with the one gray crayon that remains.


Storytime Success Story: the rambunctious Seven Bad Cats gets the kids roaring with laughter

Seven Bad Cats, illustrated and written by Moe Bonneau, published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, ISBN: 978-1492657101. (2018)

I consider creating year-end Best of the Year lists enjoyable and fun. I look at books all year and take notes and keep lists of titles that might just make the final cut. And then–voila–I unveil the list (usually in late November). But just when I think my work is done and the list is engraved in stone–I discover a book that somehow slipped by me. I yell out a big “D’oh!” and mildly fret (“how did I miss this gem?”). But then I remind myself that I can still blog about the book, and that usually people looking for good picture books to share with young audiences are totally cool (here I go, buttering up you folks taking time to read this).

I don’t know how Moe Bonneau’s Seven Bad Cats got by me. Recently I was pulling together a bunch of books for my Jammie Time program and I noticed that I had an impromptu cat theme going. I needed one more festive feline romp and decided to give Seven Bad Cats a try. Oh, I’m so glad I did.

Fueled by amusing ink and watercolor illustrations, Bonneau’s tale tells of a child who wishes for an enjoyable self-navigated sailboat ride only to have her plans thwarted by the naughty titular characters. Bonneau serves up simple yet surprising couplets describing the mischievous trip-ruining behavior of these sneaky creatures. One cat eats from her traps, two cats use her oars for naps, three tease crabs from above, while four keep stealing her gloves (it’s an excellent counting book–I have the children count the cats on each page). The cats’ facial expressions prompt giggles (I love their “hey, don’t look at me, I’m not doing anything wrong” eyes), and Bonneau skillfully captures their slinky body movements. One great moment has five of the cats holding up numbered signs as if in a police line-up after shredding the sails. Bonneau gives each cat a distinct color–one is purple, one is blue, and so on–and this makes each spread visually striking. After they cause an accident, the cats must redeem themselves and they surely do in a most satisfying way. I have the kids clap for them for saving the day. Seven Bad Cats also ends with a funny, wonderful punchline. This is a book that allows the storyteller to ham it up if they so desire. Or it could be read in a deadpan manner as well. I have done it both ways and the kids have roared with laughter. The book has a strong narrative arc. It’s a winner.

Picture book of the day: the surreal beauty of the The Full House and the Empty House

The Full House and the Empty House, illustrated and written by LK James, published by Ripple Grove Press, ISBN: 978-0999024935.

One of the many joys of working with A Fuse #8 Production blogger extraordinare Betsy Bird is she gets a LOT of books sent her way and she loves to show these books to lucky co-workers such as myself. As soon as she held up LK James’ The Full House and the Empty House and said “ooh, I think you’ll like this” I became intrigued. The covers shows two stylized houses with arms and legs, holding hands and dancing in front of lovely red, green, and red foliage. As soon as I started paging through this delightful, quirky, and surprisingly poignant work I knew I wanted to write it about here on this humble blog. For this book serves up a sense of mystery as it shows the titular characters (strikingly rendered in hand-drawn ink and edited digitally) frolicking and playing together. Why is the turquoise house empty and the red house full? Who lives in them? Where did those who once lived in the turquoise house go? Or is the dweller existing inside of the turquoise house simply leading a simple life with few possessions? Is this an allegory about a friendship that defies class differences? There is so much to ponder here. But even more importantly, this title satisfies as a rather sweet friendship story about celebrating differences.

James creates a unique world all her own here. It really helps that, thanks to succinct words and especially her gorgeous imagery, she makes the concept clear and easy to follow. I love it when she takes us readers inside the red house and we can see the turquoise house peering in the window. And what a wonderfully odd touch to have paintings on the wall of house-like creatures playing instruments or walking together? (Is this a people-less world where only houses live? Hmmm, it seems so. I’m getting an almost Asimovian vibe here.) James does a great job showing the differences between the houses’ respective interiors: the abundance of goodies in the red house, the emptiness of the turquoise. The book really comes to life when the houses dance. The objects inside the red house clatter and clang (love the swirling lines representing noise and chaos outside the red house) and fly about. Oh, I love a good rumpus! Instead of feeling jealous, the empty turquoise house grooves on hearing the red house’s chaotic symphony and because it is empty and thus much lighter, it can leap in the air with joy.

Some of my favorite picture books feel like beautifully done animated films that beat to the sound of their own drummer. The Full House and the Empty House definitely falls into this much beloved category for me.

Picture book of the day: movement and joy and a glorious ride through a beloved city in My Papi Has a Motorcycle

My Papi Has a Motorcycle, illustrated by Zeke Peña, written by Isabel Quintero, published by Kokila (an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC), ISBN: 978-0525553410, ARC reviewed, Release Date: May 14, 2019.

Spanish edition: Mi Papi Tiene Una Moto, ISBN: 978-0525554943, Release Date: May 14, 2019.

Oh, what a joyful burst of energy this book is, a vibrant slice of life story that celebrates a daughter’s love for her carpenter father, and an author’s love for her community. The vivid prose sings, and the cinematic illustrations (created with a Wacom Cintiq with a mix of hand-painted watercolor texture) effectively convey vroomy rumbling movement. My Papi Has a Motorycle (also available in Spanish as Mi Papi Tiene Una Moto) feels alive–it’s both gentle and rollicking, tender and raucous. Author Isabel Quintero brings a sense of fun to her highly personal anecdote (discussed in an end note) of how as a child she would ride on the back of her father’s motorcycle around her town of Corona, California. This story may seem small on one level, but Quintero’s world view is epic. In an economical fashion, she touches on so many things: how immigrants built (and continue to build) this city, how neighborhoods change (there’s a bittersweet moment when they travel to their favorite place to get shaved ice only to find it closed), moments when father and child (named Daisy) roar past murals that tell their history, and so on. All the while Quintero creates one of the best father-daughter picture books I have ever seen.

Wow, Zeke Peña’s illustrations serve as a perfect match for the text. At times using explosive graphic novel style panels and effects (word balloons, special lettering for sound effects), Peña does an amazing job capturing the excitement of this eventful trek. I love the palette he uses–the colors jump off the page. I love watching the motorcycle zipping down the streets, around the beautifully rendered buildings. There are gloriously surreal moments like when Daisy’s mother and brother wave goodbye as she and her father start their journey. Mother and child are bigger than their house, and the enormous VROOOOOMM dominates the spread as dad speeds away. Flip of the page and there’s an explosion of color in an overhead shot as they travel, and Quintero writes a breathtaking line: “The shiny blue metal of the motorcycle glows in the sun. The sun, the sun, the bright orange sun is on its way down, turning our sky blue and purple and gold. We become a spectacular celestial thing soaring on asphalt.” Wow! Cool! Love this!

There are other moments I dig. The shout out to Cathy Camper’s and Raúl the Third’s Lowriders in Space books. The way Peña draws the dogs that go wild when the moto races by, and also how he depicts the stray cats. The unicorn on Daisy’s helmet (we see her playing with a toy unicorn at the book’s start, giving it a ride on a toy motorcycle on the gorgeous endpapers that also introduce the layout of the city).

But as a librarian I must say man, Mr. García the librarian, who gives a Mr. Cool nod as they pass (papi and Daisy nod back), seems like the hippest coolest librarian in the history of picture books. No shushing from Mr. García. I could see him bringing down the house reading books as great as My Papi Has a Motorcyle in storytime.

This will easily make my Best of 2019 list.