Picture books of the day: Outside, Inside and another shout out to the new Caldecott winner,We Are Water Protectors

Outside, Inside, illustrated and written by LeUyen Pham, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1250798350.

I love hearing illustrators and authors talking about their work. Lately, thanks to many virtual webinars and conferences, I have enjoyed listening to insightful and thought-provoking conversations with picture book creators who reveal the inspirations they had for their latest wonders. Extra points given if a cat or a dog appears trying to sabotage the talk. A playful feline popped up in the middle of Caldecott Honor winner (Bear Came Along) LeUyen Pham’s recent recorded interview shown during a virtual conference. And it was the perfect moment because she had just mentioned the black cat that appears throughout her latest effort, the poignant and remarkably honest Outside, Inside.

Outside, Inside talks about life during a global pandemic, but does so in a way young children will understand, and with dignity and grace. Her language is direct, pared down, observational (“Something strange happened on an unremarkable day just before the season changed./Everybody who was outside…/went inside”). The narrator sounds perplexed perhaps, but we readers, even the youngest of us, understand exactly what is going on. We have been living this. With delicate economy, Pham touches on many aspects of this crisis (exhausted health workers in hospitals, scenes of people elearning or playing games or concerned about their money situation while staying inside, masked people social distancing outside). She brings a much-appreciated global view to the title. She intersperses panoramic double spreads throughout the book.

All the while the aforementioned cat wanders from page to page. Pham explained in her emotional interview that the cat is there because it’s the one character who can freely take readers outside and inside and back again. I’m probably making this book sound heavy. Pham does not shy away from what has made the last several months rough. But she fills her warm, muted illustrations with empathy and humanity and in the last moments, hope. She reminds us that we all have the same beating heart inside. We are connected. And a new season will begin.

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

This past Monday the Youth Media Awards were announced, and so many of my favorites received some love. See the Cat, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat!, The Cat Man of Aleppo, Me & Mama, Honeybee, A Place Inside of Me, Danbi Leads the School Parade, Welcoming Elijah…so many others.

I have to give a special shout out to the Caldecott Winner We Are Water Protectors. Illustrator Michaela Goade made Caldecott history by being the first Native woman to win this top medal. I fell in love with the book the first moment I saw it. Carole Lindstrom’s text is exceptional, and Goade takes the visual cues from the words and soars with them. Here is what I wrote back in July of 2020:

“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.”

Quick takes: a mix of six terrific new picture books

The year is still very young and wow, I have already encountered several terrific new picture books. Here are six titles that prove my point. Each title offers distinct, eye-catching art and captivating, enthralling words. Each book stays in the memory as a result. Here they are in alphabetical order by title.

The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars: A Life of Edwin Hubble, illustrated by Deborah Marcero, written by Isabelle Marinov, published by Enchanted Lion, ISBN: 978-1592703173, to be released: January 19, 2021.

Ah, just look at those recurring spreads with a myriad of stars and embossed silver words glittering against a dark nighttime sky. This visually striking non-fiction biography conveys the pure lifelong joy and wonder Hubble experienced when studying the heavens. Marinov’s rich and informative (and economical) text carries readers from Hubble’s childhood to the time the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit. And along the way Marcero’s stylized and warm illustrations find creative ways to tell his story. Add some clear, helpful back matter and the result is a cosmic journey through a major scientist’s life and accomplishments.

Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, illustrated by Natasha Donovan, written by Traci Sorrell, published by Millbrook, ISBN: 978-1541579149, to be released: March 2, 2021.

One of the great things about reading picture book biographies is you learn about incredible people who deserve bigger shout-outs and wider praise. This first-rate look at scientist Mary Golda Ross shows how this resilient woman battled sexism in a male-dominated field and became one of the most successful aerospace engineers of the 20th century. She held on to traditional Cherokee values as she faced her challenges and succeeded tremendously, all the while working on top secret classified projects. Sorrell tells Ross’ story with effortless, succinct grace and Donovan’s uncluttered art is inventive and inviting. Great back matter.

Seaside Stroll, illustrated by Maribel Lechuga, written by Charles Trevino, published by Charlesbridge, to be released: January 19, 2021.

What “S” words can I use to describe this splendiferous story? Special. Surprising. Satisfying. This celebration of the word “s” stars a girl enjoying a wintry stroll near the sea. Trevino fills the pages with words starting with the letter “s” that suitably capture the action. “Steady step, solid step, shaky step…stumble.” In a subtle touch, some of the seemingly simple lines mirror each other, build on one another. This will be a storytime success thanks to the spirited, staccato text. Lechuga’s sumptuous, sweeping spreads shimmer with delight. Lechuga does especially well with the protagonist’s facial expressions and body language as she explores her slippy surroundings. Readers will feel experience every mood, from sudden shock (oh no, a lost toy!) to smile-inducing happiness (phew, that was a close one). Superb.

Stella’s Stellar Hair, illustrated and written by Yesenia Moises, published by Imprint, ISBN: 978-1250261779.

What an explosion of interstellar exuberance this book is! It not only bubbles with effervescent Black girl joy, but works wonderfully as a look at the planets. Stella lives up in the sky and cannot wait to attend the Big Star Little Gala. However, she wants her hair to be wow-inducing. So she travels to see her fabulous aunties, each living on a different planet, so they can work on her hair. In an amusing and clever touch, each hairstyle they create matches (in some way) the planet Stella is visiting. The back matter does a great job showing how. Moises tells Stella’s story with giddy glee, packing the prose with action words that take the breath away. And how cool is her art? Illustrations you can study for details. The radiant colors enthrall and enchant. This will become a storytime favorite.

We Became Jaguars, illustrated by Woodrow White, written by Dave Eggers, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-145218393, to be released: March 30, 2021.

Well, this is certainly an intergenerational story that beats to the sound of its drummer. And that’s a really good thing. A child receives a visit from a very playful grandmother who wears a spotted shirt. She sees that the kid, our first person narrator, is very shy, hiding behind a plant with jungle-like leaves. So this grandmother does what every grandmother does: she starts crawling on the carpet, growling, and says “let’s be jaguars.” And it works: the child instantly enjoys connecting with their inner-jaguar. And let the wild rumpus start! The pair actually turn into jaguars and head into the wild where they will do jaguar-y things (well, except eat rabbits…because the kid is allergic to eating rabbits). Eggers’ witty words match beautifully with White’s striking, heavily detailed gouache, acrylic, digital illustrations. Each page turn offers a striking visual surprise.

What's the Matter, Marlo? de [Andrew Arnold]

What’s the Matter, Marlo?, illustrated and written by Andrew Arnold, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1250223234, to be released: January 26, 2021.

It’s so cool when talented graphic novel artists successfully enter the picture world. Jillian Tamaki, Raúl the Third, Vera Brosgol, Ben Hatke, just to name a few, have done it. Now add to that esteemed list: Andrew Arnold, one of the co-creators (along with James Sturm and Alexis Frederick-Frost) of the delightful Adventures in Cartooning books. (He is also the founder and editorial director of the graphic novel imprint, HarperAlley.) Arnold sprinkles in many graphic novel touches when telling this moving tale of a boy having a sad day and a friend who helps him by being there and offering comfort. Speech bubbles, a creative way with the frame and just an overall visual inventiveness as he tells the story. He excels at depicting body language and facial expressions; the reader goes on a memorable emotional journey with both characters. Pair this dynamic and ultimately sweet examination of empathy with Cori Doerrfeld’s equally poignant The Rabbit Listened.

Picture book of the day: with bursts of color, Strollercoaster defies gravity

Strollercoaster, illustrated by Raúl the Third and Elaine Bay, written by Matt Ringler, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0316493222, to be released: May 4, 2021.

2021 has just begun and already I have experienced a book that will easily make my favorite picture books of the year list.

Strollercoaster does not hit shelves until May 4, 2021, but it has given me such a giddy rush I must rave about it now. The book starts with a temper tantrum to end all temper tantrums, one that only can be cured by a wild, surreal, psychedelic stroller ride through town. Parents, caregivers, kids, everyone can relate to the highly dramatic situation author Matt Ringler writes about with relatable urgency whether they are the ones having the actual meltdown or the people who must calm down the one having the raging fit. Ringler slips into the head of the child, named Sam, having the bad day, giving reasons for their frustration. The inside feels too small and the blocks, trains and stuffies are not where they should be. The aforementioned stroller ride is “the only way out of this disaster.”

So now the parent zooms the child outside in a bright, bilingual, sound-effects packed urban world filled with wonder, action, friendly faces (from humans and animals alike) and delightful sites. The trek resembles a rollercoaster ride (hence the title) with the stroller going up, up and up and down, with the little one yelling “faster, faster” with zippy glee.

It seems that I start every new year tipping my hat to the great illustrator Raúl the Third who delights with his intricate, gravity-defying art, reminiscent of underground comics. His characters soar across the page, climb buildings, and, during the stroller ride, possess amazingly joyful body language. His frequent collaborator Elaine Bay adds eye-bursting color to the scenes. (They gave us the terrific ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market and ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat (both from the publisher VERSIFY.) Here they serve up a real rollercoaster ride of emotion–from frustrated anger to exhilaration to complete happy exhaustion as both parent and child happily return home to nap. Cinematic overhead shots and moments that feel like sped-up time lapse photography add to the visual feast.

Readers will be happy they took this eventful yet soothing ride.