Picture books of the day: beautiful empathy in three new books

On this blog, I love bringing books that at first glance seem unrelated together thematically. Take the three books here. They all celebrate empathy and do so by reminding readers to thinking about the world in a whole new way.

Milo Imagines the World, illustrated by Christian Robinson, illustrated by Matt de la Peña, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN: 978-0399549083.

Some years back, Robinson and de la Peña took the picture book world by storm with Last Stop on Market Street, a tender look at a boy and his grandmother and a quietly eventful bus ride. It won a surprise Newbery Award (surprising because picture books don’t usually receive Newbery attention). I like that book, but I have to say: I love Milo Imagines the World even more. This book truly enters the head and shares the mindset of its introspective artist hero. To pass time on a long subway ride, Milo looks at the passengers and tries to imagine what their lives are like. And he draws pictures that reflect his assumptions–some comical, some more downbeat. Soon he realizes though that first impressions can be wrong and wonders what people think when they look at him. I reviewed the audio for this title for a magazine (publication pending) and first listened to it without looking at the illustrations. And wow, de la Peña’s writing is great here: vivid, tender, atmospheric. You feel as if you are on the train with Milo. But then I listened to it again while looking at Robinson’s always inventive art (collage, acrylic paint, and “digital manipulation”) and wow do the illustrations ever soar. I love how he uses a different child-like approach with Milo’s drawings. The book also ends with a poignant and powerful final image that packs an emotional punch.

Over the Shop, illustrated by Qin Leng, written by JonArno Lawson, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536201475.

Sometimes books with a message hammer that message home. Not Over the Shop. In fact, if you skip past the author’s dedication, you may not realize what exactly is happening, why the bigoted elder character behaves the way they do. Over the Shop is a gentle, quiet, wordless slice of life story that feels like one of those great animated shorts that ends up with an Oscar nomination. Artistic, lovingly detailed, possessing a big heart. The story revolves around a child who lives with an older relative who runs a little shop. The family tries renting out a rather run-down apartment above the shop. Many potential residents examine the space, only to quickly reject it. However, when an interested couple arrives, the older character responds in a surprisingly hurtful manner and the child intervenes. Soon the couple becomes an essential part of their lives and the community. Qin Leng’s lovely art adds humanity and soothing tenderness to Lawson’s hopeful story.

Ten Little Dumplings, illustrated by Cindy Wume, written by Larissa Fan, published by Tundra (an imprint of Penguin Random House), ISBN: 978-0735266193.

This story whisks readers to the village of Fengfu, to the top of the hill, to a very large house where there lives a family considered very lucky…because they have not 1, not 2, not 3, but 10 sons. Fan’s rollicking story chronicles the boys’ many achievements and how the townspeople are there to ooh and aah over every milestone, every race won, well, everything. But wait…in the background, do we see another character? A quiet presence who might be just as impressive? I love books that surprise me, and Fan does a fabulous job with the idea that sometimes people in the background deserve to shine just as bright as those deemed legendary. If not more so. Wume’s rambunctious illustrations (rendered in ink, gouache and colored pencil) beg to be explored thanks to the comical details, but also because we start seeing the quiet character in every scene. Yes, the flashy boys command attention. But who is that we are glimpsing? What’s refreshing about the book is Fan does not make out anyone to be a horrible villain (the boys are lively without being brats). It simply reminds readers that everyone is worth noticing and has something to offer.

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