Picture books of the day: eye-catching picture book design in the animal frolics Bear Came Along and Summer

Bear Came Along, illustrated by LeUyen Pham, written by Richard T. Morris, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316464475.

Summer, illustrated by Yu Rong, written by Cao Wenxuan, published by Imprint (a part of Macmillan Publishing), ISBN: 978-1250310064.

I love hearing the wows when I read Bear Came Along to preschool groups. This colorful and broadly funny romp stars a bunch of animals who end up sharing a wild trek on a log down a bendy, twisty river. Author Richard T. Morris serves up a delightful cause and effect approach when telling the tale: because a bear investigates a river, he falls in, attracting the attention of a friend-seeking frog who hops on his head, causing them to bump into a bunch of mopey turtles and later a beaver who captains the ship (actually a log) they all now ride on and so on. Illustrator LeUyen Pham gives readers thrilling POVs of their turbulent journey–look at those blue waves in the river, the animals’ expressions (some bubbling with excitement, others with extreme worry) as they struggle to control the log, the way the trees on the side seem to be bending out of control. What makes the children go “wow” is an incredible moment involving a waterfall halfway through the book. We suddenly take on the perspective of the animals as they approach this huge drop (love that we can see the animals’ feet and toes). A flip of the page and we are now facing the animals who are all in freak out mode. Another flip and Pham whisks us to a faraway shot of the animals right on the edge of the waterfall. And then another flip and we have to hold the book vertically as the animals soar over the waterfall. Do they survive? Another flip: YES! Did they love this thrilling adventure? Heck yeah they did! Pham and the book’s art director make great use of the book’s rather large dimensions, serving up a picture book that shows beautifully across the room for larger groups.

Summer also stars a bunch of animals who inadvertently come together, face a dilemma and end up as friends as a result. But author Cao Wenxuan takes the reader to a drier climate: the grasslands on a hot hot hot day. Right from the very start, he gives the tale the feel of a classic folktale, a long lost fable. He writes of the “burning hot sun” hanging in the sky, and of small creatures dozing in the shade, hoping to be cool. A turn of the page and we see animals in the “parched” grasslands also seeking shelter and finding limited options while kicking up dust. A “sharp-eyed” jackal spots a tree and the animals (big and small) race for it only to find that the near-leafless tree is barely alive, offering minimal relief. Yong Ru masterfully employs a cut paper and pencil technique when creating her illustrations. Her animals have a comical warmth, a roundness, to them, and she surrounds them with swirling browns that radiate heat. When they get to the tree, they must figure out a way to all share the shade. Their solution involves smaller animals standing in the shadows of larger critters. Yong Ru does something magical with this moment: flaps that start small and then grow larger as the animals help each other out. It’s truly a beautiful piece of picture book design. Summer ends on a lovely hopeful note. I also must mention the colorful lettering used throughout. The book is visually intriguing, and never cluttered. It’s a summertime delight.



Storytime Success Story: Daniel’s Good Day encourages conversation

Daniel’s Good Day, illustrated and written by Micha Archer, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, ISBN: 978-0399546723.

What is your idea of a good day?

Daniel, the inquisitive hero of the terrific 2016 charmer Daniel Writes a Poem, asks a variety of people this very question after being wished a good day. Kind of like those nuns in that classic 1968 documentary Inquiring Nuns who ask people on the street “Are you happy?” As expected, the responses vary from individual to individual, giving Daniel (and young readers/listeners) a broader sense of the human experience in the process. Every answer Daniel hears bubbles with optimism and happiness (unlike some of the sadder answers heard in the film I just mentioned).

In the first Daniel book, the introspective child conversed mostly with animals, inspiring him to write a climactic poem he delivers to a bunch of people watching him recite. In Daniel’s Good Day, he seems to have come out of his shell, effortlessly posing his query to such folks as Mrs. Sanchez (a house painter), his friend Emma, a gardener, the newsstand seller, and others. As in the first book, Archer lovingly creates a warm, colorful urban environment with her collages and innovative art. As Daniel makes an urban trek to see his grandmother, each spread creates a welcoming vibe. The illustrations show beautifully across the room for large groups, but also would work well one on one thanks to intricate details that invite investigation.

When I did this book for a fantastic preschool group I see every month, the students loved an interactive approach I introduced when telling the story. After each person answers Daniel’s question, I asked the group “why would that character say that?” And the children loved providing different answers. For example, the gardener replying “bees on flowers” led to a fine discussion about pollination and nectar and why bees are important. The baker’s answer of “Birthdays” also prompted a thoughtful response, as did the mail carrier’s answer of “Wagging tails.” Everything leads to a very comforting final third with Daniel appreciating all that was said to him, and applying ALL the supporting characters’ answers to the formation of his.

Archer won the Ezra Jack Keats Award for the first Daniel book. This second Daniel title is also a heartfelt winner. It certainly makes an already good day even better.


Picture book of the day: Brendan Wenzel offers another thought-provoking look at perspective with A Stone Sat Still

A Stone Sat Still, illustrated and written by Brendan Wenzel, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-1452173184, ARC reviewed, to be released: August 27, 2019.

Writing about this outstanding picture book poses a bit of a challenge.

There is such much going on, so many different layers at work here, so many intriguing spreads to point out and describe. I could compose an epic-sized essay that still wouldn’t do Brendan Wenzel’s work justice. It’s a book that throws many visual ideas (and puns) at the reader, juggles several playful notions about perspective, and delivers a powerful ecological message as well. And it’s all about a stationary rock that Wenzel says (in a recurring meditative refrain) sits still “with the water, grass, and dirt/and it was as it was/ where it was in the world.”

This title serves as a companion to the 2016 Caldecott Honor winning modern picture book classic They All Saw a Cat, which shows how the appearance of a feline would change depending on who views her. Wenzel takes this idea and runs with it even further. Animal after animal encounters the stone, and the conditions surrounding the encounter change, but not in any way the reader expects. For example, “the stone is bright” shows an owl at night sitting on the titular object–it is indeed bright but because of the moon glow. The rest of the scene has a dark nighttime feel; I love this juxtaposition. In other moments, the stone feels rough to a smooth snail, but smooth to a rough porcupine. A wolf interacts with the stone by smelling it, while otters associate the stone with their sense of taste by having their meals on it (“the stone was a kitchen”). To a giant moose the stone is a pebble, to a little beetle the stone is a hill. Oh, and I love the sneaky regal look on that wildcat’s face on the “and the stone was a throne” page.

I have written a lot on this blog about the way Brendan Wenzel has his own unique style. Even though Wenzel is endlessly inventive, taking wildly different approaches to creating his art, using all kinds of materials to do something new from spread to spread, his artistic creations always shout out “I have been created by Brendan Wenzel!” It’s in the way he creates the animals’ eyes (I call them Wenzelian Eyes), their bodies. His love for the animal world shines through in every moment. When Chronicle, the book’s publisher, allowed me a sneak peak at this work and asked what I thought, I wrote this in my response: “I consider Brendan Wenzel one of the most inventive illustrators working today, and A Stone Sat Still reaffirms this. What I always see in his work is a joy for creativity, for illustration, for art (with a love for nature as well). The philosophical nature of the book is haunting: the stone sitting still while change goes on around it, meaning so many things to so many beings. His work here is distinct and superlative. It’s a book that only Brendan Wenzel could create.”

A Stone Sat Still serves up an intriguing twist halfway through that involves the stone becoming submerged under water. A sense of melancholy prevails and haunts, inviting reflection. The final images of the stone sitting still in the world are both beautiful and mesmerizing. This is one of those terrific picture books that stay in the memory long after you close it, and invite you to revisit it on a frequent basis to bask in its inventive wonder.