A tribute to the quietly brilliant 2020 Legacy Award winner Kevin Henkes and why Kitten’s First Full Moon remains one of the greatest Caldecott winners ever

On Monday, January 27, 2020 I was at the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference. Even more specifically, I was sitting in the audience for the super-epic Youth Media Awards announcement. Now for those working with children and teen books, this event is sort of like the Oscars, the Super Bowl, and the most rollicking rock concert rolled into one. The suspense, the excitement, and those cheers. It’s a ceremony where the words “the committee chose four honor titles” tingles the spine and prompts a collective “oooh.” We learn which books and authors and children’s literature professionals will be walking away with the gold and the silver. And during this raucous morning, ALSC President Cecilia McGowan announced that  the ALSC Legacy winner (given to a legend who has made major impact on children’s literature–past winners include such singular talents as Jerry Pinkney, Donald Crews, Jacqueline Woodson, Nikki Grimes, Maurice Sendak, Tomie dePaola, among other greats) is…drum roll please…Kevin Henkes.

The room erupted in cheers. And for good reason. Kevin Henkes has contributed over 50 books throughout his nearly 40 year career and all of them have been absolutely terrific. He has written novels, easy readers, and picture books, mastering each form. He understands the emotional landscape of children, introducing them to animal characters such as Owen, Jessica, Lilly, Chrysanthemum and Penny, who experience some of the very things human kids experience.

During the past few years, the career and serene wisdom of Fred Rogers have been justly celebrated. Kevin’s work reminds me a lot of Mr. Rogers. For example his recent books even have emphasized the power of waiting (we wait for an egg to crack in Egg and yes, he even called a delightfully surreal Caldecott Honor winning book, wait for it, Waiting). The lovely and profound nature books that he creates with his fabulous illustrator wife Laura Droznek also instruct readers to stop and look at the world around them: watch the birds, embrace the four seasons, wait for change.

I had the pleasure of hosting Kevin at my library once and he is quite simply one of the gentlest, nicest people imaginable. So even though the cheers for his win were loud and almost took the roof off the convention center, I smiled because his works speak such quiet truths.

The book I always try to give my friends who become new parents is his great 2005 Caldecott winner Kitten’s First Full Moon (published by Greenwillow, ISBN: 978-0060588281). When people ask me a list for my favorite all-time Caldecott winners I always include the Kitten. It’s a story I love reading in storytimes–it’s a surefire crowd-pleaser. For those unfamiliar with the book, it tells the story of a little kitten who sees her first full moon, mistakes it for a “little” bowl of milk in the sky, and then does everything in her power to catch it. Every attempt results in catastrophe (the refrain: “poor kitten”). But fear not, kitten ends up with a happy ending in the form of a “great big bowl of milk on the porch, just waiting for her” (lucky kitten!).

What I love most about Kitten (other than his vibrant writing and the visually striking nocturnal world he creates for his beautifully rendered, expressive feline hero) is I can read it DIFFERENT ways to a group. If my storytime group is a bit on the wild side, I can read the story quietly, like a lullaby, in a tender voice. Henkes’ words soothe.

And yet…

If my storytime group is being goofy and they want the wild rumpus to continue, I can read the story like it’s the wildest thing ever. Kitten accidentally eats a bug (cue the audience to yell “ewwww”), tumbles down the stairs (have the kids act out the movements), chases after the moon (the kids move their legs like they too are running), and jumps into a pond she mistakes for an even BIGGER bowl of milk (I have the kids shake water off their “fur”). It’s a very versatile picture book.

So yay, congratulations Kevin (although I’m not sure if he’ll see this since he doesn’t really do the technology thing) and to the 2020 Legacy committee, fabulous choice. Thanks for your books. And to the 2005 Caldecott committee, you did good, too. : )

Picture books of the day: Everyone’s Awake! and A Polar Bear in the Snow show off illustrator Shawn Harris’ impressive versatility

Everyone’s Awake!, illustrated by Shawn Harris, written by Colin Meloy, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-1452178059.

A Polar Bear in the Snow, illustrated by Shawn Harris, written by Mac Barnett, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536203967, to be released: October 13, 2020, ARC reviewed.

A while back I found myself going through a pile of picture books. At first I was enjoying a peek at Everyone’s Awake!, a deliriously funny and whimsical romp about a nocturnal ruckus. As a fan of Colin Meloy’s terrific and idiosyncratic group The Decemberists (I have played The Crane Wife and The King Is Dead over and over again–true story), I found the author’s outrageous and unpredictable text most intriguing. And the rollicking, free-flowing illustrations made me continuously say “wow.” I made a note of this gifted artist working in three spot-colors and, according to the illustrator’s note, “original grayscale plates rendered with India ink, charcoal, and pencil.” I looked at the name: oh yes, Shawn Harris, the talent who provided the fabulous imagery in Dave Eggers’ stirring Her Right Foot (2017). He’s cool.

Coincidentally the next book on my pile was A Polar Bear in the Snow with its succinct yet playful text by the ever-wonderful (and prolific) Mac Barnett. The textured art, done in cut-paper and ink, grabbed me. And I looked at the name again on the cover: Shawn Harris. Oh yes, Shawn Harris, where did I just see that name?–hey, wait a second, is this the same Shawn Harris? I quickly investigated and sure enough, Shawn Harris illustrated both books. Whoa!

Although A Polar Bear in the Snow does not come out until October and Everyone’s Awake! popped up in stores on March 3, I still wanted to pair them together. Every once in a while an artist will show off incredible versatility in two releases coming out sorta around the same time. Harris’ work beautifully complements the vision of the books’ respective authors. Meloy has a fantastical imagination while explaining what various characters are doing late at night instead of catching zzzzzs, and Harris matches each comical situation with a rather demented glee. And yet there’s a visual clarity and beauty to be found in the chaos. What I love most about the book is its vibrant sense of place. We feel as if we are partying in that inventively designed lighthouse with the card-playing mice, the dart-throwing dog, and the mom tap dancing to Prince.

Barnett, meanwhile, strikes a more pensive, dreamy tone with his direct prose that sometimes asks readers questions about what the polar bear in question is doing. Harris introduces the creature incrementally, playing with blank space as readers see the polar bear seemingly waking up in the middle of a snowstorm. We see his nose first and then his eyes, and then his paper cut body. The artist shows him walking across an icy terrain, passing by playful seals, a cave, a meddlesome human (whom he scares off with a justified roar), heading somewhere. Where? It’s a mystery. When we finally do arrive at the polar bear’s destination, Harris pulls out a glorious water-drenched finale that makes the heart soar.

Quick takes: six new terrific crowdpleasers

There have been so many wonderful picture books released this year. Here are six that delight and impress.

Going Up!, illustrated by Charlene Chua, written by Sherry J. Lee, published by Kids Can Press, ISBN: 978-1525301131, to be released: April 7, 2020.

Wow, who knew that an elevator ride to a birthday party would be so eventful! A cookie-bearing kid hops on to soar up to the 10th floor, but the elevator keeps stopping to let on happy, smiling people of diverse backgrounds. Watching the size of the crowd accumulate inside the elevator adds a pleasing sense of zaniness to the account. Chua’s illustrations have a festive warmth to them, and Lee’s text keeps you engaged. And I love how the book’s tallish dimensions call to mind the size of a high rise apartment building or the shape of an elevator door.

I Don’t Like Rain!, illustrated and written by Sarah Dillard, published by Aladdin (an imprint of Simon and Schuster), ISBN: 978-9781534406780.

It’s funny how the crowd can sway your mood sometimes. On a sunny day, a happy bunny asks their friends to play. Even a few drops of rain cannot dampen this rabbit’s high spirits. However, the other animals scurry and say they don’t like the rain. The protagonist starts to feel miserable, now resentful of the dripping water filling the air. Luckily the book provides a happy ending with everyone realizing playing in the rain can be rollicking fun. This is the perfect preschool storytime book–bunnies, moods, spring, weather. And I love how Dillard uses the word “drip” to stand in for the raindrops, giving the downpour moment a truly surreal feel.

The Music of Life, illustrated and written by Louis Thomas, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, ISBN: 978-0374303150.

Set in Paris, this underrated gem stars a musician named Lenny seeking inspiration late one night. Just as he’s about to give up, he hears his cat lick lick lick as it drinks milk and then the sink go plic ploc pluc as the water drips. The noises grow as the sun comes up, leading the now-euphoric composer to write a glorious symphony consisting of various noises. The sound effects will encourage audience participation, and I love how Thomas makes the whole idea of the artistic process easy for young children to understand. This is a lovely and zippy romp.

‘Ohana Means Family, illustrated by Kenard Pak, written by Ilima Loomis, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823443260.

Readers will enjoy watching a Hawaiian lū’au come together as Loomis’ cumulative text, effectively done in the style of The House That Jack Built, captures each step. Pak’s intriguing illustrations show people working together to make the event special. It’s a fairly intricate process making this joyous, tradition-based get together take shape. The words have poetic bounciness to them: “This is the stream of sunlit gold,/flooding the land that’s never been sold, where work the hands so wise and old, that reach through the water, clear and cold,/into the mud/to pick the kalo/to make the poi/for our ‘ohana’s lū’au.” Valuable.

Over the Moon, illustrated by Zoey Abbott, written by James Proimos, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-1452177151.

I love books that beat to the sound of their own drummer, and this title certainly beats away. It’s a strange one with a moment or two of startling humor, but possessing a certain sense of melancholy that haunts the reader. Two wolves take in a baby human girl floating down a river. One wants to care for her, nourish and protect her. The other initially wants to turn her into a meal, but (thankfully) chooses kindness over gluttony. An inevitable twist has the child encountering the human world and hoping to belong. Proimos does a beautiful job mixing the funny with the profound, and Abbott’s figures feel both idiosyncratic and timeless.

Trees Make Perfect Pets, illustrated by Cathy Gendron, written by Paul Czajak, published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, ISBN: 978-1492664734.

This charmer has already become a storytime favorite. For her birthday, Abigail says she wants a pet. Not a dog. Not a hamster. Not a bird. But rather a tree, a dogwood she calls Fido. People, especially her brother and a pesky neighbor boy who brags about his cat Oprah Whiskers, tease her for her choice. And having a tree has its share of ups and downs. However, everything leads to a sweet, satisfying ending that convinces readers trees are great to have around for many many reasons. Czajak’s text sings with amusing good cheer as Gendron’s fluid illustrations pop off the page.

Picture book of the day: Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots explains a tough concept with wit and humor

Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots, illustrated and written by Michael Rex, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, ISBN: 978-1984816269.

I mentioned this book before in a “special sneak preview post” earlier this year. Since that time I had the great pleasure of sharing this witty and sharp look at a complex (and important….especially in this day and age) concept with one of my very favorite storytime groups. The children absolutely loved it! Of course they could probably sense my admiration for Michael Rex’s work. I truly believe that, when sharing books with younger children, people should read books that they find super cool. And that’s a fact! Or is it my opinion? We need some robots to help us!

Using multicolored (and very funny) robots as stars, Rex clearly presents what makes a fact different from an opinion. He does it in a way many fascinated kids will find entertaining and easy to understand. His cheerful digital illustrations show beautifully across the room–the metallic creatures possess amusing expressions that range from bliss to bafflement. I love how Rex’s text is both playful and direct. Crystal clear, no wasted words. “Do you know the difference between a FACT and an OPINION?” It can be a hard thing to understand. Even these robots get confused…”. The book’s interactive nature helps clarify the lesson. Rex introduces the robots, describes their physical characteristics (there are three robots, each with two eyes, and one is blue, one is yellow, and the third is red) and then asks “Are there three robots? Do they each have two eyes? Do any of them have three eyes?” Kids love answering the questions. Rex then ups the comical ante when asking for opinions about such topics as which robot has the coolest dance moves. Other effective sequences provide examples of when we need more information before giving a correct answer. Is the forlorn purple robot we see named Bruno, Buddy, or Bubba? We need to WAIT for more information.

The robots do start battling and get out of hand. They become very opinionated while arguing over ice cream flavors for example. But phew, things settle down, thanks to OUR help. At the end Rex asks “Is this an awesome book?” The kids in my group unanimously yelled “YES!” They truly learned the difference between fact and opinion, thanks to Rex’s innovative and fun approach.