Picture books of the day: two gorgeous CaldeNotts explore nature and connections with great sensitivity

Birdsong, illustrated and written by Julie Flett, published by Greystone Kids, ISBN: 978-1771644730.

Song of the River, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews, written by Joy Cowley, Gecko Press, ISBN: 978-1776572533.

As the end of the year swiftly approaches, you can start hearing the book buzz about year-end best of lists and awards talk. Many in the children’s books world are taking part in Mock Caldecott programs or leading young students through discussions about possible Caldecott winners. And part of this discussion brings up the melancholy reality that some beautifully illustrated books won’t be eligible. People dub them “CaldeNotts.” In order to be eligible for a Caldecott, the illustrator must have some kind of residency tie to the United States. I, like many librarians and/or teachers and/or picture book fans, have encountered a breathtakingly well-illustrated title and say “ooh, hope the Caldecott committee notices this one” only to go “d’oh!” when I read the artist’s bio. Now many of these illustrators are eligible for other awards in their home countries. For example, the great Canadian illustrator Julie Flett (illustrator/author of Birdsong and another 2019 beaut The Girl and the Wolf, the latter written by Katherena Vermette) won Canada’s 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award for When We Were Alone (written by David Robertson) and is the three time recipient of the Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Award (for residents of British Colombia or Yukon).

Birdsong is a book of quiet beauty and humane heartbreak. A rather sensitive, introverted Cree girl moves with her mother to a new country home. This child takes in and notices the nature surrounding her: the trees, the field covered with snowdrops, the peeps and ribbits of outside creatures. Her dog Ôhô (meaning owl in Cree) by her side, she befriends an elderly next door neighbor named Agnes. As the seasons change, the two spend quality time together in places such as Agnes’ garden and art studio where she works on a round, bright pot. The two bond while talking about waxing and waning moons. The girl tells Agnes about the Cree seasons. As winter turns into spring, Agnes’ health deteriorates and the girl cheers the now-bedridden woman up with a beautiful present: drawings she has made of birds. Flett’s art (rendered in pastel and pencil, and composited digitally) matches her evocative, moody text with great clarity. Each illustration conveys emotion without feeling treacly: the sadness of moving, the serene wonder of country living, the warm connection between the girl and Agnes, the tenderness of the girl’s gift, the sorrow of losing a friend. Flett knows when to employ a double page spread or white space for maximum visual impact. Her use of color (greens, browns, light blues, and so on) reflects the season she depicts. Every image feels tender and poetic.

Birdsong makes a good companion with Song of the River from New Zealand. The copyright date says the author Joy Cowley wrote the book in 1994. However, Kimberly Andrews’ eye-popping illustrations are from 2019. I could see Cam, the young mountain boy starring in Song, becoming good friends with the young girl from Birdsong. They both seem like quiet souls who take stock in the natural world and wonder about life’s bigger questions. Song starts with Cam hanging out with his grandfather and telling his elder that he wishes he could “see the sea.” The grandfather replies that one day this wish will be fulfilled; they will go out together. Just when the reader expects the two to make a journey to the sea together, Cowley throws a curve at the reader. This becomes a solo adventure with the boy noticing and then following a trickle of water running through pine trees. The water speaks to the lad, instructing him to “Come with me. Come with me. I will take you to the sea.” The boy does so, and the trickle leads to other trickles, and then a waterfall, and a creek, a stream, a river, all the way to the sea. The world becomes more crowded as Cam journeys. Robertson’s art here shimmers and shines. She serves up misty shadowy images, depicts light reflecting in the water, plunges under a river to show us some frogs with sun rays breaking the surface. She excels at capturing the shifts not only in the physical landscapes but those going on inside Cam’s mind. The book is both an exterior and interior journey. And it’s simply spellbinding.


Picture book of the day: celebrating The Shortest Day

The Shortest Day, illustrated by Carson Ellis, written by Susan Cooper, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763686987. 

In 1974, Newbery medalist Susan Cooper (The Grey King) wrote a poem called “The Shortest Day” for John Langstaff’s theatrical piece Christmas Revels. And now 45 years later, Caldecott Honor winner Carson Ellis (Du Iz Tak?) creates mysterious, mesmerizing, and ultimately warm images to accompany Cooper’s intriguing words. Cooper’s words and Ellis’ illustrations connect the past to the present in the most creative of ways.

It’s interesting to note that a book based on a poem starts with a series of wordless spreads. At the very start, Ellis presents a giant mythic-appearing figure with a sun for a head, using a walking stick, ambling across the landscape. She shows two people from a faraway past sitting next to a crackling fire as the sun-headed figure approaches, looking exhausted. It’s amazing how much emotion this character conveys through body language and with no discernible facial expressions. As the sun disappears, we see people (most likely farmers) gathering wood. You can feel the chill radiating from Ellis’ gouache folk-style paintings. The shadows of birds. Snow covers the landscape.

When Cooper’s poem begins, the effect is powerful. “So the shortest day came,” she writes on a spread that shows one last glimpse of sunlight. A flip of the page and we now see houses plunged into darkness; candlelight seen in windows the only light. Suddenly jubilant people emerge from a house carrying torches, candles, holly, and musical instruments. Cooper writes “And everywhere down the centuries/of the snow-white world/Came people singing, dancing,/To drive the dark away.” The book continues to chronicle  the ritual and contains a beautiful image of the merrymakers in a circle while unusual spectral visions dance in the sky.

Another moment I love in the book is when Cooper and Ellis transition us to the present. There’s a page with three kids from the past heading towards the now-risen sun. A flip of the page and suddenly Cooper and Ellis transport us to the modern world with a trio of contemporary children in a similar position heading towards a house. These young ones join together for a celebration reminiscent of the days of old. Just look at the happiness Ellis captures here with her distinct art. Her work beautifully echoes Cooper’s message wishing readers a Happy Yule.

The Shortest Day is a yuletide treat: idiosyncratic perhaps (in a great way), but also very human and warmly moving.

Picture books of the day: My Footprints, The Piano Recital, and Sweep capture the inner-workings of their protagonists’ minds

My Footprints, illustrated by Basia Tran, written by Bao Phi, published by Capstone Editions, ISBN: 978-1684460007.

The Piano Recital, illustrated and written by Akiko Miyakoshi, published by Kids Can Press, ISBN: 978-1525302572.

Sweep, illustrated by Júlia Sardà, written by Louise Grieg, published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1534439085.

As I have written before, one of the things I enjoy most about keeping up a regular blog is finding picture books with similar themes or ideas. They may seem completely different from one another at first glance, but then with deeper exploration, connections and similarities appear. This visually engaging trio of books share a common trait: all three use vivid, often surreal imagery to show what’s going on inside their child protagonists’ heads. All three children are experiencing intense emotions. Fear and anxiety. Anger. And/or frustration. However, the creative talents behind each offering manage to keep the stories playful and surprisingly light, and serve up happy reassuring endings.

Akiko Miyakoshi’s The Piano Recital emerges as probably the funniest book of the bunch, but one that still simmers with discomfort as it tackles a common fear: public performance. First published in Japan in 2012, this exquisitely rendered (in pencil, charcoal, and acrylic gouache–the colors pop off the page) tale depicts a girl named Momo preparing for a concert. And she is beyond nervous. As Momo psyches herself up with an “I’ll be okay, I’ll be okay,” she suddenly hears a squeaking voice echoing her words. She looks down and sees an elegantly dressed mouseling also preparing for a recital…in a little mouse world. The mouse invites Momo to watch the entire talent show, and we follow her and become a spectator to quite an enthralling show. Miyakoshi’s books all have a dream logic to them. They’re cute on one level, but they always strike me as odd and off-kilter (in a great way). This keeps them from being too overly sweet. Although the antics of the mice are cute, they also have a weirdness to them that feels disorienting. This is also apparent in her masterpiece The Way Home in the Night that made me think of David Lynch’s surreal rabbits. Did Momo imagine the mice to help her push through the performance? It’s a mystery. But a satisfying, triumphant one.

Many past picture books have used vibrant imagery to capture a child’s anger. The striking Sweep effectively uses the motif of swirling, whirling leaves tossed about in a raging storm to represent a boy named Ed’s foul mood. Writer Louise Grieg wastes no time giving us a rundown of what’s up. On the very first page she writes “Ed in a good mood is a very nice Ed. Ed in a bad mood is not. And Ed was in a bad mood.” The immensely gifted illustrator Júlia Sardà shows him on a blank white page wearing a hat and scarf covering his nose and mouth blowing in the wind. His eyes, under raging eyebrows, glare at the leaves on the opposing page. The broom he carries is immense and ready to get a workout. Although his bad day starts off as something small, the sour feelings grow and accumulate, and soon Ed is sweeping everyone and everything around him up, infecting them with his angry outburst. The text and digitally created imagery combine to create quite a spectacle. When Ed finally calms down and starts seeing the good in his world, the reader feels a sense of sweet relief.

My Footprints has so many things going on it, so many layers, that a mere capsule review cannot do it justice. Written by the celebrated poet Bao Phi (who penned the 2018 Caldecott Honor winner A Different Pond) with gorgeous empathy, the story revolves around a child picked on for being Asian, for having two moms, and for being a girl. In an afterword, Phi talks about how he worries about how bullying or erasure might affect his daughter. So with My Footprints he shows the harmful effects two bullies have on Thuy, but then shows how she, with her parents’ love, rise above everything with their unified imagination. Living in a wintry environment, and clad in a cat hat, Thuy interacts with common everyday animals (a bird, a cat) and makes animal-like tracks in the snow. Then Thuy starts imagining herself as giant creatures such as polar bears. After an explosion of frustration, the parents comfort her. In a beautiful touch, Thuy and her moms start making footprints together of more mythical beings. This all leads to Thuy creating her own unique imaginary species, called Arti-Thuy-Ngoc-osaurus (in honor of all of their names). Basia Tran’s art sings and dances across the page throughout. I love the facial expressions of the characters and her renderings of the creatures. The result is a book that offers a series of memorable images, the warmth of a family’s bond radiating with beauty and grace.

Storytime Success Stories: A trio of charmers (As Warm As the Sun, Astro Girl, and Mr. Scruff) win over the storytime crowd

As Warm as the Sun, created by Kate and Jim McMullan, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823443277.

Astro Girl, illustrated and written by Ken Wilson-Max, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536209464.

Mr. Scruff, illustrated and written by Simon James, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536209358.

Every month I visit a group of preschool classes packed with the most amazing kids. They love to laugh and listen to brand new books. It’s fun trying out stories that I have not read to anyone on them. Recently they responded quite favorably to three books: Ken Wilson-Max’s lovely Astro Girl, the McMullans’ new sibling allegory As Warm as the Sun, and Simon James’ verbally witty Mr. Scruff. This lively trio surprised them with their twists and spoke to them. Creating picture books with warm, inviting illustrations that show well across a room and succinct text that engage while tap into a wide range of emotions is definitely a challenge. And all three of these books emerge as terrific examples of seemingly effortless picture book success stories.

Astro Girl introduces readers to a child who loves all things outer space. Her name is Astrid after all. She dresses like an astronaut on the cover (and the title page). The story begins with her using a small telescope to study the night-time sky. Wilson-Max’s charming acrylic paintings practically give the reader a hug. Astrid tells her pal Jakey that she wants to be an astronaut, and he responds by asking her to bring home an asteroid. Her response “Of course I will, Jakey” is beyond cute. The story then captures a sweet conversation between Astrid and her father. When she announces her plans to become an astronaut, Papa tells her she must be prepared to spin round and round the earth, get used to zero gravity, and other elements of the job. Joyful play accompanies each parental instruction: he spins and tosses her in the air, they make rocket-shaped cookies, and cuddle under a starry blanket. The book soars to another level when Wilson-Max delivers a final surprise. Astrid and her dad head off to pick up their mom at work. And guess what she does for a living? Kids listening to the story just love this ending.

For As Warm as the Sun, Kate and Jim McMullan take a break from their justly acclaimed and popular vehicle series (titles such as I’m Dirty! and I’m Fast!) for a tender story about an older dog trapped in an existential crisis when a younger pooch comes along. The McMullans’ evocative watercolors deftly convey the warmth this elder canine, named Toby, feels when lying in a sun puddle on the livingroom floor. Toby also enjoys the warmth of a child’s lap and cozying near a crackling fire. The book then takes a melancholy turn when the McMullans write about how the sun fades, the lap disappears, and the fire fizzles out, and how Toby must stay warm in his dreams. Drama ensues when a younger, littler dog named Pinkie appears and Toby finds himself vying for the warmth. Many books have covered this topic (new siblings, change, appearance of a new individual who steals focus), but there’s something special about the way the McMullans tap into the emotional angst. The writing crackles, and they are not afraid to go chilly sad with Toby’s dilemma. Thankfully an anticipated happy ending comes, with the regretful Pinkie making amends with Toby. Children love seeing the two dogs become friends at the every end.

The invaluable Simon James loves writing about inter-connectedness between individuals around different locales. His books sparkle with a curiosity about others. His bouncy ink and watercolor illustrations always delight. His latest, Mr. Scruff, starts off as a seemingly simple book about dogs belonging to certain dog owners, and how an older dog named Mr. Scruff seems destined to live forever in a shelter. But James has a blast playing with words and rhymes in the book, and this trickery adds an extra element of fun. Before we meet the titular character, James introduces us to a poodle named Polly who (turn the page) belongs to Molly, and a dachshund named Eric who (turn the page) belongs to Derek, and so on. Mr. Scruff, we learn, sadly belongs to no one. And so it goes. Luckily a child comes along who, despite being younger and smaller than Mr. Scruff, wants to adapt the dog. And the child’s name…well, it doesn’t rhyme with Mr. Scruff. But it’s a perfect match anyway. James then introduces another shelter dog, this time a puppy, who ends up paired with an elderly man. James pulls off a surprise ending involving the names of the puppy and this elderly owner that had the kids in my storytime giggling…the off-kilter nature of the rhymes boggling their minds.