Picture books of the day: wild encounters in Camp Tiger and Little Doctor & the Fearless Beast

Camp Tiger, illustrated by John Rocco, written by Susan Choi, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN: 978-0399173295.

Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast, illustrated and written by Sophie Gilmore, published by Owlkids Books, ISBN: 978-1771473446.

As I have said on this blog in previous posts, I like to find the similarities in picture books that are seemingly very different. The metaphorical Camp Tiger and the ecological-minded Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast may not appear to have much in common at first other than the fact they both show a young protagonist interacting with a large wild creature. And yet both titles have a dream logic to them. They both have serious messages bubbling under their surreal surfaces. They both deal with overcoming fears. And on an artistic level, they both offer evocative writing and illustrations packed with unforgettable moments.

Camp Tiger certainly beats to the sound of its own drummer in a most memorable manner. Adult novelist Susan Choi, making her impressive kidlit debut, introduces a young boy anxious about entering the first grade. It’s the end of summer vacation, and he and his parents and brother head to a large park in an undisclosed location. Things become odd when a tiger appears. The humans don’t seem to bat an eyelash when the tiger starts speaking to them, asking to share a tent with the kid because its cave is too cold. Choi provides details that create a rather off-kilter mood: no other campers appear, and neither does a park ranger. Is the tiger the boy’s imaginary friend, and is the child’s family simply humoring him? Is the tiger a manifestation of the child’s anxiety about all the changes in his life? Or are we to take everything literally? That in this world Choi has created, a tiger can befriend the boy, help him deal with some big changes, and accompany him on wild rumpuses that involve roaring at the moon. The book teases the brain. Along the way Caldecott Honor winner John Rocco serves up memorable image after memorable image with his illustrations (created using a watercolor sketch and wash pencil and digitally added colors). So many shots of the realistically rendered tiger and the expressive child become unforgettable: the tiger underwater, an overhead shot of boy and beast in a boat with the stars reflecting in the water (reminded me of the novel, and film version of, Life of Pi), the kid cuddled up with his furry pal. Several picture books this year have ended on enigmatic notes, or tried to be all mysterious and strange. Camp Tiger definitely ranks with the more successful attempts at mind-bending allegory.

Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast also has a dreamy quality to it, and drops the reader into its world with little explanation. And yet illustrator/writer Sophie Gilmore delivers her story with such confidence and skill we happily go along with her outlandish yet compelling vision of a young girl doctor who lives in the jungle and cures giant crocodiles. Gilmore introduces her protagonist in a direct style that reminds readers of a classic fairy tale or folktale: “There once lived a child the crocodiles called Little Doctor.” Gilmore then gives us a delightful image of the serious-looking kid in her doctor’s office. Croc bones hang on the wall, along with a humorous poster of a crocodile that reads “Catch It/Don’t Spread It.” As the appreciative reptiles reward her efforts with stories, Gilmore fills the spreads with swirling imagery that teases the eye. Most of the plot revolves around the appearance of the Big Mean, a ginormous croc who needs help but refuses to cooperate and keeps threatening to eat our hero. Gilmore builds the suspense with ease: will Little Doctor be able to figure out what’s wrong? Will Big Mean make a meal out of her? When we find out what’s exactly wrong in an effectively handled surprise ending that is very much of our real world, Gilmore delivers a much-needed ecological message that packs a punch. This would make a good companion to Andrea Tsurmuri’s Crab Cake, another funny and poignant charmer about treating our fellow creatures with more respect.


Picture book of the day: Sydney Smith’s Small in the City is a spellbinding stunner

Small in the City, illustrated and written by Sydney Smith, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823442614, ARC reviewed, to be published: September 3, 2019.

On this blog I have said many times that some of my very favorite picture books feel cinematic. In these cases, the illustrator becomes a director, a cinematographer, a film editor–shifting perspective, creating moods through thoughtfully composed imagery. I especially see this striking quality in the wow-inducing work of Canadian illustrator Sydney Smith. My blog entry about the evocative award-winning art he created for Joanne Schwartz’s powerful Town Is by the Sea discusses this aspect.

Small in the City feels like a compelling animated short, the kind that would be up for awards at international film festivals. The book creates a sense of moody mystery from the very first page when we see the shadowy profile of a person riding in a vehicle–the outside world blurry through a window. A flip of the page and we get an exterior shot of what turns out to be a trolley. We see that the person is a small gender-unspecified child wearing a winter’s hat, looking rather concerned and introspective. We go back inside the trolley and Smith shows the child pulling the string that signals the driver to stop, and then a shot showing how small the child is, compared to everyone else, standing in the crowded aisle. A flip of the page and Smith gives a mid-range view of the child, looking tiny, walking with purpose in an urban landscape. With each ensuing page turn, Smith plays with how he frames the action. One spread captures the city’s disorienting loudness by breaking the images into small frames (it feels like a bunch of quick edits). Another illustration shows the child’s fractured reflection in mirror-like windows, conveying the child’s uneasy sadness–this kid feels broken. The reader keeps guessing what’s up with this young protagonist. As a deftly rendered (Smith creates the jawdroppingly beautiful art with “ink, watercolor, and a bit of gouache”) snowfall starts becoming more dramatic, the reader becomes concerned.

The succinct, atmospheric text Smith writes for the story adds another layer of spellbinding drama. Smith uses the “you” pronoun with haunting finesse. At first the reader thinks the narrator is an omnipresent one, directing comments to the child. Then after a while the reader starts to realize that the child is the one speaking. Is the child giving self-motivated advice? Smith isn’t afraid to add some danger to the narrative (“Alleys can be good shortcuts. But don’t go down this alley. It’s too dark.” Or “Three big dog chase and bite each other in this yard. I would avoid the place…if I were you.”).

It soon becomes clearer and clearer what’s going on. And although summaries give away the surprise, I believe for maximum impact it’s best for readers to not know the twist when first reading the book. What’s great about the book is it grows in power on subsequent reads. Listen to the language Smith uses. Look at the washed out, slushy colors Smith employs that call to mind cloudy, snowy days and melancholic moods. Small in the City is a book the reader experiences–sounds, images, emotions. This is the work of a truly gifted picture book creator at the height of his powers.


Picture book of the day: celebrating a milestone with The King of Kindergarten

The King of Kindergarten, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, written by Derrick Barnes, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, ISBN: 978-1524740740.

The terrific The King of Kindergarten starts with a quote from Benjamin Mays: “A child must learn early to believe that his is somebody worthwhile and that he can do praiseworthy things. The child must have the love of family and the protection they give in order to LIVE and FLOURISH.” Author Derrick Barnes (Coretta Scott King Author Honor Winner and Newbery Honor Winner for Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut) builds on this idea beautifully with an inspirational and loving text that bubbles with creativity, wit, and empathy as a boy faces a milestone (the first day of kindergarten). Barnes deftly employs a second person narrator, and the “you” becomes universal, putting the reader in the boy’s shoes. The result is one of the very best “going to school” books I have read. What’s great about Barnes’ premise is although mom and dad treat the protagonist like royalty, the kid doesn’t get all ego-trippy at school. He treats his peers with respect and kindness. He knows that they too are Kings and Queens; he acknowledges that they too are special.

I love Barnes’ use of language throughout, the way he plays with the idea of the boy being royalty as he goes through his morning routine. The kid doesn’t just brush his teeth, he uses a “…a golden brush to clean Ye Royal Chiclets.” He washes his face “with a cloth bearing the family crest.” And he dresses himself “neatly in handpicked garments from the far-off villages of Osh and Kosh.” A school bus becomes “a big yellow carriage” that delivers “you to a grand fortress.” This adds a warm witty humor to the story that elevates the text, giving it a playful spark.

Meanwhile, the supremely gifted illustrated Vanessa Brantley-Newton fills each spread with color and joy. Just look at how the parents radiate love for their child as he wolfs down a tower of pancakes. Look at the loving exchange as dad measures his son, getting so tall he might be taller than his Daddy one day. Her artwork (“hand drawn and then colored using Adobe Phtoshop and Coral Painter”) delights and surprises throughout. For example, the spread showing the teacher discussing counting and letters and telling stories about “trucks, trains, and tractors” to her delighted students has a warm aqua background and images of vehicles and numbers and letters of the alphabet swirling around them. Another spread showing the boy and his new friend pretending to “save the kingdom by battling a fire-breathing dragon” has streaks of color in the background and a chalk drawing of a dragon standing behind the triumphant twosome.

The hopeful book ends with the child returning home, happily remembering such a grand first day. I love how The King of Kindergarten nails its ending. A lot of picture books I have read recently just kind of peter out. But King satisfies with a promise that “tomorrow, it will begin again–another day as the charming, the wonderful, and the kind…King of Kindergarten.” You are happy that you joined him on this journey. And you cannot wait to read the book again, even to yourself or to your storytime crowd that will most likely find his experiences encouraging and rewarding.


Picture book of the day: When Aidan Became a Brother bubbles with joy and love

When Aidan Became a Brother, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita, written by Kyle Lukoff, published by Lee & Low Books, ISBN: 978-1620148372.

What a sweet, joyous, loving book this is, filled with empathy and heart. This own voices story, written with sensitivity and emotional immediacy by Kyle Lukoff, tells of a boy named Aidan who, when he was born, everyone thought was a girl. His parents paint his bedroom walls pink, and dress him in clothes usually worn by girls. “He felt like his room belonged to someone else,” the third person narrator observes, and Aidan starts acting out, ripping or staining his clothes “accidentally on-purpose.” In a beautiful touch, his parents respond to his coming out as transgender in the most accepting way possible, and meet up with other families with transgender kids. A lot of praise must be given to Kaylani Juanita’s warm, inviting, fluid illustrations here. She is great at capturing the love between Aidan and his parents, and excellent at body language (look at the moment where Aidan jumps in the mud to wreck his dress, followed by the image of Aidan happily looking at himself in a mirror after cutting off some of his long hair). When Aidan’s family visits with other families on an outing, Juanita creates a verdant picnic scenario that pleases the eye.

Lukoff’s book reaches an even higher level of dramatic interest when Aidan finds out he will become a big brother. Aidan and his parents make sure that the new sibling will enter an environment that doesn’t reinforce gender. So when people ask “are you excited for your new brother or sister?” Aidan replies, “I’m excited to be a big brother.” Aidan starts wondering if he will make mistakes in his new role, and his mother reassures him by telling him how much he taught her and his father about loving someone exactly who they are. The touching final moments have Aidan feeling hopeful because he knows “how to love someone and that was the most important part of being a big brother.”  I adore the lovely final tableau shows a party for the newborn baby (gender not identified) with balloons spelling out “IT’S A BABY” while people celebrate.

This terrific book ranks as one of the very best of 2019.