Picture books of the day: four stories look at the joys (and wildness) of having pets

Bruno, the Standing Cat, illustrated by Jean Jullien, written by Nadine Robert, published by Random House Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0525647140.

How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy Steps, illustrated by John Martz, written by Nicola Winstanley, published by Tundra, ISBN: 978-0735263543.

Sparky & Spike: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever, illustrated by Dan Andreasen, written by Barbara Lowell, published by Cameron + Company, ISBN: 978-1944903589.

Truman, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins, written by Jean Reidy, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1534416642, to be released: July 9, 2019.

Owning a pet can be a joyful experience–or sometimes a challenging one. This lively, lovely quartet of stories celebrate the special and sometimes strange friendships children can have with their pets. All four of them amuse and provide genuine uplift thanks to witty, eye-catching illustrations and compelling texts custom made for energetic storytimes.

I have used Bruno, the Standing Cat in several of my programs and the kids love the absurd twists writer Nadine Robert throws their way. One day in his house, a boy hears an insistent meowing nearby. When he opens the door there’s a box marked “Bruno” on his doorstep. Out pops a cat who can, yes, stand (and can do so much more we soon learn). The kid’s pal Pam stops by and proceeds to ask him questions about the feline. And every answer is an absurd one. For example, when Pam wonders if Bruno munches on normal cat food, we learn that the cat loves to chew bubble gum…upside down. Jean Jullien’s hilarious illustrations with their bold lines add to the sense of giddy anarchy.

If Bruno the cat races from one situation to the next, the turtle star of the delightful upcoming Truman achieves things both modest and great slowly yet effectively. This sweet (but never saccharine) tale sneaks up on you and has a quietly hilarious punchline. Essentially a warm tale about separation anxiety, the book introduces readers to a girl who loves her pet turtle and he adores her. He notices that she’s giving him extra treats and she seems to be leaving him behind for the WHOLE day. She is heading towards her first day of school. Not acceptable! Truman decides that he will escape his aquarium and follow her there, facing his fears as he does so. What’s great about Jean Reidy’s book is it stays true to Truman’s turtle nature: he doesn’t get very far physically. Illustrator Lucy Ruth Cummins does a fabulous job chronicling his trek. And yet for Truman this journey helps him emotionally. It’s an especially big day for him and readers happily share it with him.

One of my favorite pieces of backmatter can be found in the charming Sparky & Spike, which tells a fictionalized account of Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz’s childhood bond with his pet dog Spike (the inspiration for Snoopy). At the end of the book, illustrator Dan Andreasen shares an actual 1975 letter of encouragement he received, as a child, from Schulz himself (a response to the boy’s fan letter). So it’s no surprise that Andreasen illustrates this account with love and heart. Writer Barbara Lowell does a beautiful job showing how Schulz, nicknamed Sparky, loves spending time with his most unusual pet. This pooch knows how to tell time, recognizes several words, and has a most unusual diet. Sparky also loves reading the comics and wishes to be a cartoonist (in a smart touch, Andreasen employs comic strip-style panels on many spreads). A melancholy loneliness hangs over some of the telling, with Sparky feeling alone at school even though his peers love his cartoons. A neat twist involving Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! dominates the book’s final section, bringing things to a wonderful, satisfying close. In addition to being an absorbing story, the book serves as a highly informative look at a beloved cartoonist.

The first three books discussed here all show the fun of being a pet owner. Meanwhile, although there’s a love between child and cat, the playfully subversive How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy Steps captures the pratfalls of doing a seemingly simple, much-needed task. Writing in the style of a instruction manual with succinct deadpan language, author Nicola Winstanley speaks directly to the reader, losing patience as the purple-haired kid doesn’t quite follow or understand the directions that turn out not to be so clear after all. “Step One. Fill the bathtub with warm water./That is too much water./Put a little warm water in the bath./Sigh. Step One. Put a little warm water in the bath. The water should come up to your’s cat knees.” The kid replies “knees?” Meanwhile, illustrator John Martz amusingly shows the cat constantly escaping. The task becomes increasingly impossible. The girl keeps needing milk and cookies to recharge. Messes are made. More than five steps are needed. What I love about this book is it doesn’t end sweetly with the cat begging for friendship or forgiveness after wreaking such havoc; there isn’t a saccharine hug. Instead, there’s a witty resolution that lets cats be cats and kids go grrrrrrr. Hilarious.

 

Quick takes: 12 more picture books I really like from the first part of 2019

 

There are have been so many first-rate picture books this year. So many that I am having trouble keeping up writing about them. So in an effort to acknowledge some terrific works I offer up some quick takes–a few sentences about 12 books that deserve attention and love.

B Is for Baby, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank, written by Atinuke, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536201666.

The author of the Anna Hibiscus early chapter book series serves up a bright, bustling baby-eye view of a bouncy trek to Baba’s bungalow. Brooksbank’s beautiful illustrations complement a buoyant storytime-friendly romp that bursts with “B” sounds.

The Girl and the Wolf, illustrated by Julie Flett, written by Katherena Vermette, published by Theytus Books, ISBN: 978-1926886541.

Any book that champions wolves rises to the top of my list. Like a warm weather companion to Matthew Cordell’s glorious Wolf in the Snow, this heartwarming story tells of girl in red helped by a wolf. Vermette fills her text with empathy, and Flett laces each image with graceful dignity.

Good Night, Wind: A Yiddish Folktale, illustrated by Maelle Doliveux, written by Linda Elovitz Marshall, published by Holiday House, ISBN: 978-0823437887.

Using a playful, cool collage technique, illustrator Doliveux gives readers a weary wind looking to nap after a long winter quite a vibrant personality. Not a single word is wasted in Marshall’s evocative retelling, and the wind emerges as an unforgettable character.

The Goose Egg, illustrated and written by Liz Wong, published by Knopf, ISBN: 978-0553511574.

This has already become a storytime favorite this year with a meditative, peace-loving elephant who suddenly finds herself mothering a very noisy goose. Wong delights with the narrative’s twists, pulling off the title’s wordplay with comical finesse, and offering a solution that, while expected, satisfies.

 

Lenny the Lobster Can’t Stay for Dinner…or Can He? You Decide!, illustrated by Catherine Meurisse, written by Finn and Michael Buckley, published by Phaidon Press, ISBN: 978-0714878645.

Michael Buckley teams with young son Finn for this darkly hilarious account that mixes in elements from the Choose Your Own Adventure novels. Meurisse has a blast with the illustrations, creating a memorable, incredulous lobster hero who finds out the real reason he has been invited for dinner. Run Lenny Run!

Lion and Mouse, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng, written by Jairo Buitrago, published by Groundwood, ISBN: 978-1773062242.

Buitrago expertly builds on the old Aesop fable, throwing in some new twists and new lessons about friendship along the way. Yockteng’s beautifully detailed illustrations create a memorable visual experience. You feel as if you can pet the characters’ fur. I love their expressions. Perfect for storytime.

Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando, illustrated by Kana Urbanowicz, written by Andrea Wang, published by little bee books, ISBN: 9781499807035.

I love picture book biographies that introduce me to an underrated person who created something that had major impact. Wang’s informative account tells how and why Momofuku Ando created ramen, and every page feels like a new discovery. Urbanowicz’s illustrations deftly create mood and a sense of time and place.

Peter & Ernesto: The Lost Sloths, illustrated and written by Graham Annable, published by First Second, ISBN: 978-1626725720.

Okay, I’m sneaking a somewhat longer graphic novel on here. Why? Because this sequel to last year’s equally fab Peter & Ernesto effortlessly brings on the laughs and adventure as a bunch of sloths look for a new home. I love the way Annable renders his hapless, lovable creatures. Those eyes, oh, those eyes.

Sea Bear, illustrated and written by Lindsay Moore, published by Greenwillow Books, ISBN: 978-0062791283.

Moore’s poignant depiction of a polar bear struggling as climate change destroys its habitat offers evocative illustrations and extensive back matter. This is nature picture book writing at its finest–clear, energetic, heartbreaking.

Sweet Dreamers, illustrated and written by Isabelle Simler, published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0802855176.

Ah, look at the textures on Simler’s computer illustrations of peaceful sleeping animals. Each spread has a succinct poem accompanied by a faraway view and close-up of a resting creature. The bat is my favorite, but the whole book is sublime.

When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree, illustrated by Lorraine Rocha, published by Jamie L.B. Deenihan, published by Sterling Children’s Books, ISBN: 978-1454923817.

Hey kids, don’t underestimate grandma’s gift-giving skills! That lemonade tree might not seem so exciting at first, but it’s a gift that keeps on surprising and giving. Deenihan’s bubbly text serves as the perfect match for Rocha’s warm illustrations.

When Spring Comes to the DMZ, illustrated and written by Uk Bae-Lee, published by Plough Publishing House, ISBN: 978-0874869729.

This fascinating and personal book transports readers to Korea’s demilitarized zone where nature thrives and mingles with barbed wire and warning signs. Uk Bae-Lee does an expert job explaining a complicated topic to young readers.

Picture book of the day: Why?–because Laura Vaccaro Seeger creates another poignant, thoughtful book

Why?, illustrated and written by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823441730, ARC reviewed, to be released: August 13, 2019.

Anyone who has hung out with an inquisitive child will recognize and relate to this book’s scenario: a little rabbit (a stand-in for the child reader) keeps asking the bear “why?” about various situations. And yet Laura Vaccaro Seeger, the gifted two-time Caldecott honor winner, takes the seemingly simple situation and adds a poignant spin to it that elevates the work to another level. Although warm, her lovely watercolors never feel saccharine or cutesy. The animals emerge as pensive, soulful creatures, never cloying. Seeger makes them appear realistic even when engaging in anthropomorphic behavior (like looking through a telescope). I love Seeger’s approach to her topic. We don’t get the rabbit’s full question, only a “why?”. The bear’s responses help fill in the blanks, as do Seeger’s evocative illustrations. The questions start off as relatively breezy with the bunny wondering why bear waters flowers or why bear enjoys honey. But they grow in intensity, laced with a sense of melancholy. Soon rabbit bombards bear with a bunch of questions, and bear, when posed with a question about a dead bird, finally has to admit that they don’t have all the answers. It’s a surprising gut punch, a moment of vulnerability on the bear’s part. Sometimes elders don’t have all the answers. Seeger turns the situation around during the book’s final moments with the rabbit saying something that prompts the bear to ask “why?”. Although snow falls from the sky, the warmth of their friendship shines through. The final image is haunting and beautiful.