Picture books of the day: canine angst no more in Spacebot and This Old Dog

Spacebot, illustrated and written by Mike Twohy, published by Simon & Schuster (a Paula Wiseman book), ISBN: 978-1534444379.

This Old Dog, illustrated by Gabriel Alborozo, written by Martha Brockenbrough, published by Levine Querido, ISBN: 978-1646140107, to be released: September 1, 2020.

Part of the fun in writing blog posts is pairing books that, at first glance, might not seem that similar but actually have a lot in common. Mike Twohy’s whimsical sci-fi laced Spacebot seems to exist in a different narrative universe than the more realistic and poignant This Old Dog with its heartfelt text by Martha Brockenbrough and warmly expressive art from Gabriel Alborozo. And yet at the heart of both stories exists an alienated pooch experiencing canine angst because some other being (a robotic dog in the former, a new baby in the latter) monopolizes attention with their sweet fabulousness.

Although Twohy names his book Spacebot and puts this mechanical wonder on the front cover, the focus is mostly on a bouncy, friendly yellow dog with brown ears and tail who craves a new intergalactic friendship. Spacebot arrives one night on a UFO, and because Spacebot resembles a metallic dog, our hero thinks “YAY, NEW FRIEND!”. However, instead of gravitating towards the furry creature, Spacebot (in a hilarious touch) starts interacting with the house’s electric appliances. Spacebot has the ability to help them defy gravity and soar to the sky…leaving the dog out of this fantastical nighttime rumpus. Just as things seem hopeless for the deflated pup, Spacebot leaves behind a special surprise that gives the tale a happy ending. A gifted award-winning comical picture book creator, Twohy (a master at depicting dogs) keeps the action moving with his energetic staccato couplets and his delightfully fluid illustrations.

One thing to note about Spacebot is we see no humans present. This Old Dog only shows one person in full, and that’s a lovable toddler. We only see the legs and arms of the grown-ups. Most of the focus is on the elderly furry gray dog with floppy black-tipped ears and some white spots. This endearing protagonist does not move as fast as before, and wishes the world would slow to a more manageable pace. Life has become a race thanks to the presence of the little human now residing in the house. I absolutely love the way Alborozo depicts the dog in this book, giving the critter a wide variety of expressions and perfectly rendered body language; the reader feels every emotion the dog feels. Brockenbrough’s text does not waste a single word and does a beautiful job adding layers to the situation. This emerges as a surprisingly rich character study. What raises the book to another level is the immensely satisfying resolution (that also makes it work as a fab new sibling book). The human toddler starts walking, and thus becomes incredibly more interesting to this old dog. But not only can the toddler walk…they walk slowly, becoming a perfect companion for a character who wishes for companionship…but at a slower speed.

Picture book of the day: We Are Water Protectors delivers a powerful and much-needed message

We Are Water Protectors, illustrated by Michaela Goade, written by Carole Lindstrom, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1250203557.

Last week on this blog I presented a list of my favorite 15 books of the year so far, with the caveat that I have not had access to several great titles. So the list would most likely be incomplete. I simply wanted to applaud some titles that might become lost during these times.

Sure enough, just one day later I was back at my library working on new books finally shipped to us from our vendor, and I finally was able to see for myself a physical copy of We Are Water Protectors. And yes, this powerful, potent, and timely title emerges easily as one of 2020’s greatest picture books. Visually stunning and written with dynamic and emotionally direct purpose, Water Protectors provides an inspiring allegorical look at how many Indigenous-led movements across North America warn people about the environmental harm caused by oil pipelines. The book’s Indigenous creators write a love letter to Earth’s natural wonders, and remind readers–young and old–that they must protect the water from greed-fueled contamination.

Author Lindstrom uses a first person narrator with her poetic prose, putting the reader in her central figure’s (a young girl’s) shoes. “Water is the first medicine, Nokomis told me.” This touch brings a sense of urgency to the text. Lindstrom continues with “We come from water. It nourished inside our mother’s body” and this reminder adds a universality to the book’s message. We are all in this together. Lindstrom throws in a recurring verse (“We stand/with our songs/And our drums. We are still here”) that unites the title’s many ideas about the issue (I can also imagine this working as an effective read-aloud).

When trying to think of how to describe Goade’s illustrations, I feel I’m not going to do her work justice. These multi-layered, constantly intriguing colorful images flow like water across the page. The art conveys the glory of thriving nature, and then brings a real disturbing edge to the moments depicting the harmful effects of pollution. The girl’s expressions and body language haunt the memory, as she looks directly at the reader on one spread and faces down evil on another. Evil comes in the form of a strikingly rendered Black Snake, an imposing symbol of the pipeline threatening the water and therefore our very well-being. Truly transcendent is a cosmic moment that takes out into space with a view of our beautiful and yet fragile Earth.

Superb and meaningful on every level.

My fifteen favorite picture books from the first half of 2020

One of the few reassuring things I can say about 2020 is this has been turning out to be a terrific year for picture books. Writing about them has become a bit of a challenge because of access to new titles. I feel that books in the class of 2020 need an extra push and so voila, here’s a list of fifteen January to June books that have risen to the top of my list. Over the next few weeks, as more new books arrive at my library again, I hope to see more physical copies of acclaimed titles. So this is not a definitive list of all the fabulous works released from January to June. Just a shout out to a fierce fifteen that I think deserve a virtual high five.

Here they are, alphabetical by title:

The Bear in My Family, illustrated and written by Maya Tatsukawa, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0525555827.

“I live with a bear,” a child says at the start of this story. Yeeps! Tatsukawa’s delightful illustrations (created digitally with handmade textures) introduce a bear that is imposing and scary, but in a lovable and humorous manner: big teeth and an enormous appetite, but reaching for honey chips not humans. I don’t want to spoil the book’s surprises. Let’s just say that they bring extra layers of fun to the account.

Brown Baby Lullaby, illustrated by AG Ford, written by Tameka Fryer Brown, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, ISBN: 978-0374307523.

A warm, comforting book that will work splendidly in a Jammie Time storytime. Cozy, charming illustrations, a text that sings. A book so quiet and sweet, it feels so unassuming. And yet when you dig deeper and study the beautiful art and say those poetic words out loud, you see the art and craft that went into every page.

The Cat Man of Aleppo, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, written by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN: 978-1984813787.

This powerful look at Mohammad Alaa Alajeel starts with a note from Alaa himself. In his foreword, he tells of his love for cats and how this love drove his mission to save animals orphaned by the war that tore apart his beloved city Aleppo, and to help people as well. Writers Latham and Shamsi-Basha use the present tense when telling his story and this brings an emotional immediacy to the book.

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera, written by Suzanne Slade, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 978-1419734113.

A book about a great poet should offer strong writing, and Slade truly delivers with her concise, poetic text. Meanwhile, the fabulous illustrator Cozbi A. Cabrera fills each of her acrylic paintings with beautiful sights and memorable emotion. Cabrera often adds a surreal spin to the words. Swirling pinks, blues, and whites fill the sky. And for those concerned with made-up dialogue in non-fiction picture book biographies, the back matter assures us that every quote can be traced back to an original source.

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

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.

A Girl Like Me, illustrated by Nina Crews, written by Angela Johnson, published by Millbrook, ISBN: 978-1541557772.

I have been saving up a few books for a post about creative uses of photography in recent picture books. Nina Crews truly is one of the very best at showing how to experiment with the camera and collage for maximum effect. In this dynamic work, Crews’ innovative photographs mix beautifully with Angela Johnson’s inspirational words in this vibrant ode to girl power. Transcendent.

Hello, Neighbor!: The Kind and Caring Word of Mister Rogers, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823446186.

When I heard that the great Caldecott winning illustrator Matthew Cordell planned to create a picture book biography of the groundbreaking children’s TV performer Fred Rogers, I said to myself “of course, what a perfect match.” Cordell’s gentle kindness shines through in all of his work. And his signature watercolors share that same DIY, lo-fi, “color outside the lines” feeling to them as the pleasantly no frills classic TV series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There is a delightfully scrappy quality to the way Cordell tells the legend’s story.

Hike, illustrated and written by Pete Oswald, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536201574.

The first thing to applaud is the inventive cover. Father and child scale the title of the book as if it were a challenging mountain. Oswald chronicles their day from sunrise to sunset, deftly mixing eye-popping double page spreads that convey wonder with visual snippets that capture little moments as well. This is picture book as cinema with overhead shots, changes in perspective, rapidly presented images that suggest quick edits, and slow atmospheric panoramic long takes.

Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera, illustrated by Eric Rohmann, written by Candace Fleming, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823442850.

Wow. Just wow. Just look at those details in those oil paintings. Study how the great Caldecott winning artist Eric Rohmann brings the reader up close and personal with the hard-working and extremely fuzzy honeybee. Think about the care he put into each illustration–all those minute details, all that fuzz, those eyes, that tongue, that antennae, those stripes. Candace Fleming’s brilliant text gives the journey a driving immediacy that captivates with each and every page turn. She walks the reader through the honeybee’s busy days, all the while promising that soon this industrious bee will take flight. A masterpiece.

Lift, illustrated by Dan Santat, written by Minh Lê, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1368036924.

What’s amazing about the prolific award-winning Santat is how he manages to find new ways to visually tell a story, to shake up the picture book format. Each new book feels fresh and alive. And he excels at comedy, packing each humorous spread with amusing touches. Facial expressions that say a million words, page turns that lead to new surprises, and brilliant shifts in POV that masterfully capture the comical action. For example, examine his use of graphic novel style panels in Lift, his rather epic collaboration with Minh Lê (a follow-up to their award-winning Drawn Together). Lift has the expert pacing of a thrilling and first-rate animated film.

My Best Friend, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, written by Julie Fogliano, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1534427228.

Confession: this book has been out for months and I have not yet dedicated an entire post to it. I was planning to write about this and Jillian Tamaki’s other 2020 release, the delightful Our Little Kitchen (out September 22, 2020) in an upcoming little mini-essay. My Best Friend is a book that I keep recommending to colleagues and patrons and I’m singing its praises here. And for good reason. Tamaki’s beautiful and unique, often surreal, illustrations join forces with Fogliano’s surprising words in a book that will definitely be mentioned in every “what will win the 2021 Caledecott Award” conversation.

A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, written by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan, published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 9781419736858.

A stirring first-person memoir with Sharon Langley (working with co-author Amy Nathan) looking back at how, on August 28, 1963, she became the first African-American child to ride on the carousel in Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. The great illustrator Floyd Cooper is at the top of his game here. Using his signature technique (oil erasure on an illustration board), Cooper creates spreads that have the hazy, poignant feel of a summer memory.

The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver, illustrated by Frank Morrison, written by Gene Barretta, published by Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062430151.

Brilliant at depicting the lively vivacity of city life, illustrator Frank Morrison proves here that he is equally adept at creating quiet scenes in the woods. Here budding scientist George Washington Carver explores and interacts with the natural world. Writer Barretta does a solid job covering a lot of ground in a succinct fashion. The final spread with an elderly Carver standing near his garden, leaning on a stick cane, accompanied by the words “Regard Nature. Revere Nature. Respect Nature.” is Morrison at his best. He offers an image that haunts the memory long after you close the book.

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.

¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat, illustrated and written by Raúl the Third, colors by Elaine Bay, published by VERSIFY (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), ISBN: 978-1328557049.

Last year I went gaga over Raúl the Third’s delightfully surreal ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market, which I described as a visually inventive cross between Richard Scarry and R. Crumb. I’m happy to report that he has followed up with a sequel that is just as boisterous, just as rollicking, just as cool. I mean, we are talking supercool. Holding these books in my hand make me feel a kazillion times cooler than I ever hope of being. What amazes me about this new offering is it feels like I’m revisiting familiar old friends: Little Lobo, Kooky Dooky, El Toro, all of the animal supporting characters populating the ever-busy pages. As Little Lobo scrambles about trying to find food for los luchadores, he zips and travels through arrestingly rendered cityscapes packed with intricate comical details.

Picture book of the day: Fred Rogers and Matthew Cordell welcome readers to the neighborhood in Hello, Neighbor!

Hello, Neighbor!: The Kind and Caring Word of Mister Rogers, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823446186.

When I heard that the great Caldecott winning illustrator Matthew Cordell planned to create a picture book biography of the groundbreaking children’s TV performer Fred Rogers, I said to myself “of course, what a perfect match.” Cordell’s gentle kindness shines through in all of his work (even in such rambunctious tales as King Alice). And his signature watercolors share that same DIY, lo-fi, “color outside the lines” feeling to them as the pleasantly no frills classic TV series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There is a delightfully scrappy quality to the way Cordell tells the legend’s story. The illustrations seem, at first glance, to be simple and off-the-cuff, and yet look at all those intricate details in every spread. Each page quietly asks the reader to study lovingly rendered depictions of Fred Rogers’ life and career: his childhood, his TV show, his love for music, the way he connects with and understands young people.

I, like a lot of people, have enjoyed some recent movies and books about Fred Rogers. The excellent 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? became a hit in arthouses, with Fred emerging as human dignity personified, most welcome during these troubling times. The creative 2019 drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, with its inventive direction from Marielle Heller and stellar work from Tom Hanks, surprised many by not being a biopic about Rogers, but more about a grumpy, worldweary reporter (Matthew Rhys in an underrated performance) won over by Rogers’ kind ways. Some kids picture books popped up, all offering upbeat views of the man.

And yet with all this content out there about Fred Rogers, Cordell’s book still feels fresh, new, and alive. And you can tell that Cordell loved working on this authorized biography–the book radiates joy. As a writer, he does a beautiful job explaining to young readers what exactly makes this person and the show special. He touches on the factors that led Rogers to develop his show as a response to the loud, bombastic children’s programs exploding and crashing on the airwaves.

As an artist, Cordell finds cool ways to visually convey the many aspects of Rogers’ life. There’s a great early spread that shows him playing at his piano. Mixed in with the musical notes rising from the instrument are images of children, people and characters who appear on the show, smiley and sad and neutral emoji-like faces, that famous red cardigan sweater, other things associated with the show. Also I like the way Cordell welcomes readers to the Neighborhood, showing us the little model set with a hand lifting up a car, and then pulling back on the next page to show us the entire set. We see Mr. Rogers in the distance on the couch, but also more close-up on a TV monitor. Cordell keeps throwing in visual flourishes while providing more and more facts, presented in a succinct, lively fashion. Throw in some informative back matter, and Hello, Neighbor! gives readers of all ages a terrific and thorough look at a person who made an indelible impact. And who gave us Daniel Tiger, too!