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.