Picture book of the day: oh those panoramic images in The Scarecrow

The Scarecrow, illustrated by The Fan Brothers, written by Beth Ferry, published by Harper (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062475763, ARC reviewed, to be released: September 3, 2019.

On a vast stretch of land stands a scarecrow. Friendless and alone, a little too effective at their job–the animals keep their distance. There are no other scarecrows to keep them company. Although the fields that surround the titular character shimmer with serene beauty (well, maybe not so much in icy winter), the scarecrow endures extreme sadness.

Until a hurt baby crow enters the scarecrow’s life. The reader soon learns that the protagonist possesses a gentle, caring soul, nursing the bird back to health, creating an unbreakable bond between them (even though the crow does need to leave during winter, leading to moments of melancholy heartbreak–thankfully, the bird returns with a special satisfying surprise).

For this sweet tale, that will work beautifully in storytime and as a quiet bedtime offering, writer Beth Ferry creates a rhyming, lulling text that soothes the reader. The evocative illustrations by Eric and Terry Fan (aka The Fan Brothers) masterfully capture the story’s many shifts in mood, from sadness to bliss back to sadness and then happily back to bliss. They serve up panoramic images (using pencil, ballpoint, and Photoshop) that fill the book’s long rectangular dimensions. It’s like watching a brilliant animated film unfold in CinemaScope. Look at how the golds pop off the page as the scarecrow guards “the fields of gold” in the “Autumn sunshine.” A flip of the page gives us a long shot of the scarecrow in the distance on the right, our eyes drawn to the animals closer to us on the left–the animals afraid of our hero. The golds give way to icy colors when winter comes.

The Fan Brothers (Ocean Meets Sky) provide captivating image after image. The scarecrow and crow at night surrounded by fireflies. A moment seen from behind the scarecrow’s back as the crow flies away in summer, leaving the scarecrow behind. Followed by an extreme close-up of the scarecrow’s face with leaves falling about, accompanied by the words “Autumn chill.” Ferry and the Fans aren’t afraid to go full-on morose on us, showing the scarecrow, bent over, sagging during a winter storm. So when the crow returns in the spring, the reader cannot help but feel completely elated. The images envelope us with warm greens and blues and a feeling of hope. A new family tradition is born. Lovely, just lovely.

 

Picture book of the day: A Big Bed for Little Snow pays homage to The Snowy Day

A Big Bed for Little Snow, illustrated and written by Grace Lin, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0316478366, ARC reviewed, to be released: October 15, 2019.

I recently had the opportunity to hear the remarkable author/illustrator Grace Lin speak at a conference. She discussed how she her delightful A Big Mooncake for Little Star, which won a well-deserved 2019 Caldecott Honor, paid homage to a childhood favorite, Robert McCloskey’s classic Blueberries for Sal, which won a 1949 Caldecott Honor. And how the upcoming companion title, the equally delightful A Big Bed for Little Snow pays tribute to another of her childhood favorites, Ezra Jack Keats’ beloved 1963 Caldecott Winner The Snowy Day. These books charmed her as a child, but she also said that, as someone who is Chinese-American, she rarely saw herself represented in children’s books. So with Big Mooncake and now Big Bed, she wants to rectify this situation.

Fans of Big Mooncake will notice that Big Bed has similar design and art direction: the same rectangular dimensions and the same font. Yet whereas Lin filled Big Mooncake, with its story about a mother and child living in the starry sky, with the colors yellow and black, she employs a wintry whites and icy blues in Big Bed. In terms of narrative, Big Bed shares Big Mooncake‘s gentle ready for storytime playfulness. Little Snow’s mother tells him it’s time for bed, and reminds him not to jump on it. Of course he jumps with smiling mischief on his face. One big jump causes the bed to rip and feathers start falling through the air and down to a cityscape below. What Big Snow calls feathers, we call snow. Grace Lin in her talk pointed out that readers will find Peter from The Snowy Day in one of the building’s windows. Yes, there he indeed is! (And also I spot…could that be Little Star from Big Mooncake?) So in a way, one could say Grace Lin has created a fun prequel to Snowy Day. Hooray!

I cannot wait to pair up Lin’s two books with Blueberries for Sal and The Snowy Day in a storytime this October. A Big Bed for Little Snow will definitely become a timeless storytime staple.

Picture books of the day: ah, sweet anarchy! Five new books serve up mischief and/or rebellious behavior

Explorers, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, published by Feiwel and Friends, ISBN: 978-1250174963, ARC reviewed, to be released: September 24, 2019.

Fly!, illustrated and written by Mark Teague, published by Beach Lane Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), ISBN: 978-1534451285, review copy reviewed, to be released: September 17, 2019.

Mr. Nogginbody Gets a Hammer, illustrated and written by David Shannon, published by Norton Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1324003441, to be published: September 3, 2019.

Pokko and the Drum, illustrated and written by Matthew Forsythe, published by Simon & Schuster (A Paula Wiseman Book), ISBN: 978-1481480399, to be released: October 1, 2019.

Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies!, created by Megan and Jorge Lacera, published by Children’s Book Press (an imprint of Lee & Low Books), ISBN: 978-1620147948.

A drum-playing frog who inspires a wild musical rumpus. A zombie who worries his parents because he prefers grains, not brains. A rather bratty boy causing a scene in a museum with a magical toy. A bird trying to convince a parent that any other mode of transportation (hang gliding, pogo stick, etc.) would be better than flapping those wings. And most bizarrely, a round figure with a face for a torso discovering the joys of smashing things with a hammer…as one does.

These characters may not seem to have a lot in common. And yet, this demented quintet causes a ruckus with behavior that’s anti-social and/or with an attitude that defies social norms. These are all characters who would happily call Max from Where the Wild Things Are a friend or at least a fellow rebel. And their antics are all giddily entertaining, bringing layers of subversive fun to books that either celebrate or depict wildness. Three of the five characters learn lessons by the end (to respect others in a shared space such as a museum, to listen to mommy/daddy bird, to not smash everything with a bleeping hammer). In two of the books, the parental units learn to chill (accept your zombie child’s dietary habits, let your frog bang that drum with complete froggy punk abandon). Some kind of order is restored (except, arguably in Pokko’s world, where the party most likely will never end–but this party is a good thing that unites everyone…well, except for a poor unfortunate rabbit. RIP trumpet playing bunny.).

The art in all five books beautifully captures movement. And each creator tells their story with expert comic timing and visual wit.

With Explorers, Matthew Cordell serves up his first near-wordless book since his great 2018 Caldecott winner Wolf in the Snow. He deftly employs his “fluid pen and ink with watercolors” technique when showing the boy’s antics in a museum. He does not give the reader a sickly sweet excursion with a happy happy joy joy family (a mother, father, son, and daughter) experiencing total togetherness while they walk through the building’s many rooms. No, he isn’t afraid to make the central character, the boy, a bit of a stinker who tosses around a mysterious bird-like toy (bought from a street vendor possessing a sign that says “Magic”) from room to room. This clueless imp shows anger at anyone who dares touch it (the mortified parents must apologize for him). Cordell gives readers great aerial shots of the action, pulling us back to capture the boy’s frantic trek. He then effectively throws in close-ups of a child’s hand catching the toy–first the boy’s, but later, the hands of other characters. The boy does learn a lesson by the end, and after much drama and more embarrassed apologies, the family becomes friends with another family. This reassuring ending brings a satisfying close to the action. And that mysterious street vendor? Oooh, who is he and where did he come from? And I dig the Abbey Road reference.

Mark Teague’s Fly! has instantly become one of my favorite wordless books of all time. Well, okay, if you’re a bird, this book probably isn’t wordless. The baby bird and the parent do speak to each other in their own language. In each speech bubble, Teague puts in one of his masterful acrylic paintings illustrating what the characters are saying. The book depicts a charming, visually witty, and hilarious give and take between a stubborn child and an increasingly frustrated parent who feels the time has come for the little one to get out of that nest and fledge already. After the little one falls to the ground, the conversation becomes funnier and funnier. The parent speaks of the glory of other birds flying. The baby responds with an image of a glorious hot air balloon. The parent’s next speech bubble shows a line crossed through that hot air balloon. The baby responds with an expressed desire to hang glide. And so on. Teague has always been a master at body language and facial expressions (his illustrations for Cynthia Rylant’s underrated story time must have The Great Gracie Chase demonstrate this), and here he perhaps surpasses himself. Just look at those birds’ faces. The book keeps surprising the reader right up to its final moments.

Did I dream David Shannon’s Mr. Nogginbody Gets a Hammer? Seriously, this is one of the weirdest books I have seen in a long time. And I adore its weirdness, the giddy slapstick dream world it creates. The plot basically concerns the titular character (love the bowler hat and tie) encountering a nail, smarting, buying a hammer, learning how to use it, and then bashing everything (flowers, chess pieces, etc.) with it. Fans of comical picture books know that Shannon is one of the very best; he knows how an effectively placed page turn can punch up a punchline. Here he is at the heights of his powers. The book begs to be read with a British accent. Any lessons learned? Yes, Mr. Nogginbody discovers that nurturing a living thing can be more satisfying than smashing. Phew, we’re all safe now.

The froggy star of Matthew Forsythe’s irresistible Pokko and the Drum is basically a good frog who tries her best listening to her parents, but hey, when your drumming gets the party started, you can’t stop the beat. Look at how Forsythe skillfully sets up the comical scenario by detailing how the parents have a history of giving Pokko presents that don’t seem to quite work out: a slingshot and a llama (I’m loving these page turns), among others. The drum turns out to be the worst idea because she cannot stop playing it loudly, and the parents fear the noise will call attention to their humble little mushroom home. After they send her outside to play, they ask her to be quiet, but of course she cannot resist tapping her drum gently. Suddenly a raccoon playing a banjo joins in, and then a rabbit playing a trumpet pops up, and Pokko starts drumming louder. There’s one unfortunate moment of carnage involving a wolf munching on the aforementioned rabbit (oooh, nice subversive moment there Mr. Forsythe), but after a heartfelt apology, the party continues, and the band of music-playing animals grows and grows and grows until it crashes into Pokko’s home. Instead of yelling at their daughter, the parental units agree that hey, this chaos isn’t bad at all, and Pokko rules on the drums, so party on Pokko. The book looks and feels like a rediscovered lost classic thanks to Forsythe’s watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil illustrations. I cannot wait to do this in storytime.

The parents in Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies! also learn to accept their child’s ways although they find their son’s choice of cuisine (vegetables…ewwww!) horrifyingly disgusting. The zombie child must speak up for himself, and the brain-eating parents need to learn acceptance. Creators Megan Lacera and Jorge Lacera serve up a bouncy text that delivers several hilarious zombie-related puns. For example, the main character’s name, Mo Romero, is a tip of a hat to famed zombie film director George A. Romero. There’s also a quick homage to Eating Animals writer Jonathan Safron Foer (called Jonathan Safron GORE). What I love about this book is how fearless the Laceras are: they don’t hold back with the startling imagery. Yes, the cartoonish illustrations keep things from being too scary. Finger foods are, yes, actual severed fingers. And yes, we see brains prepared for consumption. But in this hilarious world, Mo’s vegetable dishes are just as grotesque…it’s all in the eye of the beholder. When the parents try Mo’s gazpacho soup (Mo thinks the bloody look of the dish will make it seem more desirable), they not only spit it out, dad’s eyes pop out of their sockets and mom’s head falls off. Kids with a twisted sense of humor (and there are a lot of them) will love how the Laceras deliver a message of acceptance with such morbid grace.

 

Picture books of the day: 3 new titles demonstrate how to make a great non-fiction picture book sing

A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, written by Barry Wittenstein, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ARC reviewed, ISBN: 978-0823443314, to be released: September 24, 2019.

Rise!: From Caged Bird to the Poet of the People, illustrated by Tonya Engel, written by Bethany Hegedus (with a foreword by Colin Johnson), published by Lee & Low Books Inc., ARC reviewed, ISBN: 978-1620145876.

What Miss Mitchell Saw, illustrated by Diana Sudyka, written by Hayley Barrett, published by Beach Lane Books, . review copy reviewed, ISBN: 978-1481487597, to be released: September 3, 2019.

I can only imagine the time it takes to create a excellent non-fiction picture book for young readers. The writers spend hours on research, but then strip things down to create a concise yet dynamic reading experience for the child. Every word matters. As does the truth. The illustrators also have to immerse themselves into the lives and times of their subjects–study photographs or paintings, read accounts of what things looked like when the depicted details unfolded. When creating a picture book biography, the author and illustrator must capture their subject’s spirit and outlook.

This extraordinary trio does that and more. All three books contain prose passages that sing, and breathtaking illustrations that mesmerize. And thanks to the considerable talents involved, readers walk away with a deeper understanding of the books’ respective subjects (Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, and 19th astronomer Maria Mitchell).

Rise! sweeps readers through Angelou’s turbulent life, handling sensitive topics (the abuse she suffered) with sensitive grace. Author Bethany Hegedus skillfully covers a lot of ground, offering readers a thorough yet easily understood look at how she went from being a quiet, grieving child to a confident person who had many jobs, lived many places, and became an entertainer and accomplished, groundbreaking author. A book about a great writer such as Angelou better have strong prose, and Hegedus rises to the occasion with such passages as “The sights, sounds, and smells of San Francisco delight Maya. She floats through the fog, a cocoon of creativity that blankets the city.” Meanwhile, illustrator Tonya Engel creates stunning art that follows Angelou every step of the way. Just look at those radiant compositions (rendered in acrylic underpainting and oils on textured mono-printed papers) packed with often surreal imagery (love how the tall and dignified Momma Henderson has the body of a Sycamore tree to establish her strength). The art in this book is simply transcendent–with an image of Maya flying above her surroundings one of the most powerful of the year.

Author Hayley Barrett also takes an epic approach when writing What Miss Mitchell Saw, starting with Maria Mitchell’s childhood and then chronicling her life experiences through adulthood. Barrett serves up lively prose that gives readers an immersive experience (when talking of Maria exploring the island of Nantucket: “She rambled its gull-dappled dunes. She breathed the fragrance of its wild roses. She listened to the creak of whaleships…”). A total picture of Maria’s young life is created. Diana Sudyka’s warm, intricate illustrations, created with gouache watercolor and ink, are hypnotic throughout. They become especially cosmic when Sudyka gives readers surreal, shadowy views of starry night-time skies. Words swirl through the air as Maria as she sweeps the sky and becomes friends with the stars. We see her, her cat, and her telescope in silhouette, marvel at meteors and the Aurora Borealis. And at a comet that becomes the main focus of the book’s final section. It’s a thrilling match between text and brilliant imagery.

A Place to Land does not cover all of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, but zeroes in one significant, unforgettable event: the night he sat down and wrote the unforgettable speech he gave to the crowd attending the 1963 March on Washington. The book takes on an epic scope as King meets with friends and trusted advisors and confidants “in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, where Abraham Lincoln once stood.” Notable figures such as Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, and others offer guidance and advice, and Martin listens, and then shapes what will become a historic speech. Author Barry Wittenstein brings a real energy and drive to his descriptions of this meeting, and then to the amazing morning that followed. He makes readers feel like they have been transported back in time. The legendary illustrator Jerry Pinkney creates gorgeous, heart-stirring work here. His evocative oil paintings catch the expressions of a wide variety of people in the crowd. His use of collage and hand lettering add experimental touches that surprise from spread to spread. I fortunately had the opportunity here Pinkney speak and he said he’s been creating picture books for children since 1964. The art in A Place to Land feels joyous and youthful, packed with genuine care and love. For its subject. And for creating art that inspires and engages.