My favorite 25 picture books of 2017 (alphabetical by title)

Accident!, illustrated and written by Andrea Tsurumi, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN:  978-0544944800. Talk about a book packed with surprising visual humor, Andrea Tsurumi’s chaotic, surreal, and joke-a-second Accident!  has page after page after page of comical mayhem with visual puns galore.  An animal named Lola stumbles quite literally over the title of the book, causing a mess that makes her race to the library to hide.  As she races down the street she encounters other disasters that grow wilder and wilder.  Tsurumi’s graphite (on Bristol vellum with digital color) drawings and her deranged hand lettering make the reader want to flip through the pages with great celerity.  However, as the accidents magnify, the pages brim with gags that beg you to stop and explore each spread.

 

After the Fall:  How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again, illustrated and written by Dan Santat, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN:  978-1250149770. 2015 Caldecott Winner Santat gives us a Humpty Dumpty physically healed, but still psychologically scarred from the big fall off his favorite wall.  Although Santat serves us some laughs here (I love the spread of the cereals surrounding Humpty as he refuses to climb a ladder to nab his favorite brand), mostly this is a bittersweet tale of learning to rebuild self-confidence.  I found the humbled eggman’s journey surprisingly moving.  Will Humpty rediscover his courage to climb to great heights?  I would not dream of spoiling any of the story’s twists.  All I can say is Santat, working at the top of his game as a writer and as an illustrator, kept surprising the reader with this fractured yet tender Mother Goose riff.

All the Way to Havana, illustrated by Mike Curato, written by Margarita Engle, published by Henry Holt and Co., ISBN: 978-1-62779-642-2.Engle and Curato take the reader to modern-day Cuba where a boy and his family hits the road to visit the big city and see their brand new baby cousin.  Curato’s amazingly detailed, vibrant art (created, according to an illustrator’s note in the back matter, by combining pencil drawings, paintings, and textures from photographs he snapped while in Cuba) has a three-dimensional look.  The blue Cara Cara feels as if it’s bursting off the page.  Ooh, that car, that beautiful car shines in a book that celebrates the pre-1959 American cars one can find on the island of Cuba (according to Engle’s Author’s Note).  Engle’s glorious, lively text mixes in the sounds that Cara Cara makes when it needs some slight fixing. Curato masterfully captures the light and shadows of a perfect sunny traveling day as the now-repaired vehicle noisily makes its trek.  We go inside the crowded car and then outside for grand, panoramic views of the upcoming city; I love the many points of view Curato offers here.  Engle’s evocative prose makes you feel like you’re in the passenger seat.

The Antlered Ship, illustrated by The Fan Brothers, written by Dashka Slater, published by Beach Lane Books, ISBN:  978-1481451604. The Antlered Ship introduces a fox named Marco who has a LOT of questions that his vulpine peers refuse to answer.  After three hungry deer with no sense of direction or navigational skills arrive on a ship with epic antlers, Marco decides to hop on board (with a bunch of ragtag pigeons) to help them find an island offering nourishing eats.  Marco hopes that this journey will lead him to someone who will help answer his many queries.  Slater’s compelling story serves both as an adventure and as a philosophical allegory.  Throughout, the Fan Brothers keep topping themselves with captivating imagery, especially on the epic double page spreads.  The animals’ expressions are priceless.

Be Quiet!, illustrated and written by Ryan T. Higgins, published by Disney/Hyperion, ISBN:  978-1484731628. First off let me say that this book gives the storyteller a host of opportunities to ham it up–it’s quite a workout vocally and even physically (sometimes a book inspires me to happily throw myself into the material), and I mean that as a high compliment.  But what really struck me is how this dynamic piece of meta hilarity works on different levels–the adults in the room laugh at some jokes, and the little ones others.  That said, the communal joy in the room spreads, the giggles magnify.  It’s the greatest feeling in the world being engulfed by the sounds of laughing audience members.  Be Quiet! is a work of supremely funny meta fiction, so clever and surprising you never know what you will encounter with each page turn.  A bespectacled mouse named Rupert (who appeared in Higgins’ beloved Bruce books) happily finds himself the star of his own title, and he wants the story to be wordless because, as he dreamily proclaims, wordless books are so artistic.  However, all aspirations of achieving this goal fly out the window when his clueless mice pals enter the picture, disrupting the wordless calm by begging to become part of the plot.  Using speech bubbles to great effect, Higgins has fun with wordplay and goofy dialogue.

Big Cat, little cat, illustrated and written by Elisha Cooper, published by Roaring Brook, IBSN:  978-162672-3719.  When it comes to picture books, I find my taste goes more for the funny ones, the silly interactive ones.  And yet every once in a while, I find myself falling for a poignant, quietly heartbreaking picture book that puts a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.  Elisha Cooper’s Big Cat, little cat falls into this latter category, a lovingly told tale of mentorship, friendship, loss, and new hope that takes you on an emotional roller coaster ride.  The book’s power sneaks up on the reader; you don’t realize the impact Cooper’s minimalist drawings are having on you.

The Blue Hour, illustrated and written by Isabelle Simler, published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, ISBN:  978-0802854889.  Full disclosure:  my favorite color is blue, but I can honestly say that until I had the chance to enjoy Simler’s exquisite celebration of this color that I didn’t realize how many shades of blue exist.  The front matter gives us 32 splotches of different kinds of blues, everything from azure blue to cyan blue.  The book that follows is visually spectacular as Simler immerses the reader in the “blue hour,” that special time that happens when the day ends and the night falls.  Each turn of the page introduces an animal with primarily blue features such as blue jay, a blue fox, and a blue poison dart frog.  Simler masterfully uses the book’s large dimensions  (9.3 x 0.4 x 13 inches) to stunning effect; the illustrations leap off the page.

Boo!, illustrated and written by Ben Newman, published by Flying Eye Books, ISBN:  978-1911171058. Wow, what a triumph of book design this is.  With bold shapes and sharp colors and striking typography, Ben Newman’s Boo! is an artfully conceived romp in which, one by one, an animal brags about being the bravest creature there ever was.  As each character speaks highly of itself, another shadowy figure approaches from behind and then screams “BOO” when we turn the page.  I have done this book in story time and the children love guessing what kind of animal the shadowy figure will turn out to be.  And I tell them to shout BOO! on the count of three and they love doing that.  Each page turn offers a vibrant, hilarious surprise.  The reaction of each character after it is startled is priceless.

The Boy and the Whale, illustrated and written by Mordicai Gerstein, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN 978-1626725058. In Gerstein’s books you see an artist who loves using vibrant imagery to create thrilling children’s books, and his joy is captivating. The Boy and the Whale crackles with intensity as it tells the story of the young son of a financially strapped fisherman who sees a whale trapped in their only net. After plunging into the water, and looking at the still living whale in the eye, the emphatic boy remembers how he too was once caught in a net and almost drowned. The images in Gerstein’s book haunt the reader long as they close the page: the morning sun reflecting off the waves, the boy under water fighting to free the whale from the net, the lad bursting out of the water to BREATHE. This is easily one of the very best coming of age picture books ever, and can be added to the long list of Gerstein’s very best works.

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, illustrated by Gordon C. James, written by Derrick Barnes, published by Bolden (A Denene Millner Book/An Agate Imprint), ISBN: 978-1572842243. Release date: October 10, 2017. Some books feel like instant classics the moment you read them. Some books offer such joy they give you a lift. Some books feel thrilling, alive, and new. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut is that kind of book, a burst of energy that makes you so happy it exists. Author Derrick Barnes writes in an afterword that he wanted to capture the experience of black and brown boys visiting barber shops, receiving amazing haircuts, and leaving with heads held high and with elevated self-esteem. His witty, vibrant prose certainly excels at sharing what a trip to “the shop” feels like, with its second person narration and thrilling sense of urgency. And I love Gordon C. James’ art in this book. It matches the exuberance, warmth and wit of Barnes’ text while (save one surreal moment of a boy’s head becoming the aforementioned cosmic star) keeping things real.

Egg, illustrated and written by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow Books, ISBN:  9780062408723.  This is Kevin Henkes’ 50th published book, and easily ranks with his very best. In under 20 words and using comic book style panels with brown ink outlines, Henkes takes the reader on a bouncy emotional journey here, making the reader giggle, gasp, sigh sadly, and then cheer with hope.  There are many surprises in the book, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the big one at the story’s center.  And there’s a surreal surprise at the tale’s end that emerges as one of Henkes’ most magical moments ever.

Jabari Jumps, illustrated and written by Gaia Cornwall, published by Candlewick, ISBN:978-0-7636-7838-8.  Creating suspense in a picture book truly takes talent, a deft handling of the page turn and strong use of perspective.  In her Jabari Jumps, Cornwall gives the reader a relatable story of a young boy bracing himself to tackle a milestone:  a jump off the community pool’s diving board.  And my word does this uplifting tale of accomplishment get your heart racing (or maybe it’s my vertigo). As Jabari climbs the ladder, Cornwall has an effective page with four squares chronicling the action, with a POV shot that allows the reader to peek down at Jabari as he stares up the big ladder.  With a flip of the page we are then looking down, waaaay down at the pool as seen from Jabari’s perspective, and we only see his feet on the edge of the diving board.  And then another flip and we are now behind Jabari and we see his view, a striking vantage point, and our eye is drawn to this dad and sister lovingly watching him from the pool.  You cannot help but join the cheering onlookers  when Jabari flies through the air, smiling with confidence.  Thanks to Cornwall’s visual storytelling, you whoosh to the surface with Jabari, and feel as if you have taken the plunge with him.

Life, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel, written by Cynthia Rylant, published by Beach Lane Books, ISBN:  978-1481451628. Rylant’s spare, poetic and meaningful text has an inspirational bent to it, kind of a National Geographic meets Oh, the Places You Will Go! kind of vibe, confidently asking young readers to find a connection between the animals on the page and their own lives.  As a lifelong animal lover myself, I find this enormously moving and effective.  To say Wenzel takes the text and runs with it is an understatement.  From the captivating cover to the stars on the endpapers to the glorious title page which gives us a panoramic view of simple life forms swimming in water, Life hooks you at the start.  Page after page, spread after spread, Wenzel offers up memorable images.  I especially love the illustrations that mirror or comment on one another (elephants waking under the sun on the verso, under the moon on the recto; a dog facing a possibly startled cat; and most hauntingly, a gorilla facing a polar bear as the words “And something to protect” appear on the page, reminding us that these beautiful animals are endangered).

Life on Mars, illustrated and written by Jon Agee, and published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN 978-0399538520. This tale gets a lot of comic mileage out of a scenario kids love:  seeing something that a character is completely oblivious to; children love knowing something others don’t.   Chronicling a child’s journey to the Red Planet, the book’s first person narration serves as a perfect example of disconnect between text and image.  The kid (identified as a boy on the book jacket) lands on Mars’ surface in a snazzy rocket, hoping to find life, and bearing gifts (yummy chocolate cupcakes to be exact).  He’s filled with bravura at first, saying that he will prove that there is–hence the title–Life on Mars.  However, he grows increasingly mopey as he finds nothing but rocks and dirt, and decides to head home to Earth.  What follows is a hilarious game of “LOOK BEHIND YOU!!!” as a sweet, silent, and ginormous Martian follows the clueless pint-sized astronaut.  This round, blobby creature has one of the funniest entrances I have seen; it peeks out from a crater after the child passes it–I love its pointy ears.

Lucía the Luchadora, illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez, written by Cynthia Leonor Garza, published by POW!, ISBN:  978-1-576878279.  Wow, what an explosion of action and color this book is, with a heroine who emerges as one of the coolest picture book characters in recent memory.  Garza’s language zips and zooms (love those verbs!) as she tells the story of Lucía, a cape-wearing superhero-loving girl demonstrating some awesome moves on the playground.  Bermudez’s art pops off the page (I love how she gives Lucía expressive braids that fly in the air) as the protagonist soars and jumps off the monkey bars.  I like the fonts used here, with the BAMS and BOOMS catching the eye.  After two party pooper buzzkill boys, jealous of her skills, tell her that girls cannot be superheroes, Lucía becomes spicy mad and vents to her abuela.  Grandma then reveals something superamazing and the story leaps to another level of cool.  Grandma unwraps a box with a cape and silver mask, revealing that she was once a luchadora!, an agile and quick-thinking superhero.  Donning the outfit, Lucía heads to the playground looking really rad.

Mighty Moby, illustrated by Ed Young, written by Barbara DaCosta, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN:  978-0316299367 I’m going to be blunt:  Mighty Moby is one strange book (and I mean that as a compliment).  However, when you go through it a second and third and fourth time (and beyond), you start seeing that it follows the patterns of many other children’s picture books about toys, imagination, and bedtime.  What Ed Young, in full creative genius mode, and Barbara DaCosta, providing a text that cleverly reminds one of sea shanties, do here is take conventions and spin them into something wildly unexpected.  I don’t want to spoil the big surprise at the end of this book (but I’m guessing I probably gave some if it away).  All I can say is no other picture book this year has made me feel so wonderfully disoriented.  At first we think we are reading a pared down picture book version of the climactic moments of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick with Captain Ahab and his sailors battling the huge whale.  Young’s brilliant, abstract collages (he uses cut paper, photographs, string, and pastel) drop you in the middle of the action.  You have to turn the book vertically for some spreads.  One gasp-worthy page turn gives us a full view of the whale himself (“Shh!  There he is,” the captain whispered and you’re like whoa! being anything but quiet).  The magnitude of the animal is conveyed beautifully.

Mine!, illustrated and written by Jeff Mack, published by Chronicle, ISBN:  978-1452152349. There is something so cool about those books in which Mack only uses a few repeated words–they manage to give young readers a story that feels complete, with a beginning, middle, and an end.  The person reading the book aloud can use vocal inflection to show how the word can mean something different with every new plot twist.  Mine! reminded me a lot of those funny if startling Spy Vs. Spy cartoons that appear in MAD magazine (although there are no weapons–well the wrecking ball might count as a weapon):  two mice (one blue and the other orange) battle over a rock, and the one-upmanship intensifies, growing increasingly funny.  Using mixed media, Mack masterfully uses a handful of colors here; note how when the orange mouse wins a round the background and font go orange, and then when the blue emerges victorious (only momentarily) the background and font go, you got it, blue.  The moments where a mouse is tempting the other with a diversion, Mack gives us a yellow that reminds us of yummy cheese.  Everything leads to a real big surprise that I will not reveal.

Out of Wonder:  Poems Celebrating Poets, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, poems by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth, published by Candlewick, ISBN:  978-0-7636-8094-7.  Usually this blog looks at picture books for younger readers, but also I love giving shout outs to longer illustrated books that are truly special.  Out of Wonder:  Poems Celebrating Poets falls into that truly special category, a brilliant collection of poems by three poets at the top of their game paying tribute to (and writing in the style) of a wide variety of celebrated poets.  Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth write about a range of topics including “How to Write a Poem” (Alexander’s homage to Naomi Shihab Nye), the beauty of the Chilean forest (Wentworth’s celebration of Pablo Neruda), and the work of Sandra Cisneros (a lovely ode by Colderley).  If these wonderful creations weren’t enough, we have Ekua Holmes’ vibrant, brilliant collages giving the book a lush visual beauty, lifting the title to a whole new level of awesomeness.

A Perfect Day, illustrated and written by Lane Smith, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN:  978-1626725362. This hilarious romp plays with the idea that sometimes one character’s happiness can come at the expense of another’s joy.  The ever-smart-alecky Lane Smith gives us, his audience members, a soothing first half, only to pull the rug out from under our feet.  And instead of feeling betrayed by the tonal shift, we laugh quite giddily at the author/illustrator’s audacity. A Perfect Day shows four animal characters in states of bliss, only to have a fifth animal character stomp its way into the frame and cause total chaos.  Smith’s language is simple and direct when introducing a cat enjoying the sun’s warmth as it frolics in daffodils, a dog cooling off in a wading pool, a chickadee eating seed found in a bird feeder, and a squirrel munching on corncob left for it by a caring boy named Bert.  For each animal, Smith says “it was a perfect day.”  Nothing could go wrong, right?  Wrong!  In bursts bear and all heck breaks loose.

The Ring Bearer, illustrated and written by Floyd Cooper, published by Philomel (an imprint of Penguin), ISBN:  978-0399167409. Floyd Cooper’s charming new slice of life tale of a young boy named Jackson facing his upcoming ring bearer role with excitement but also some trepidation.  His mom will be marrying a loving guy named Bill who has a daughter,  which means Jackson will instantly become a big brother.  This also causes the sensitive kid some concern:  will he mess up at the wedding? will he be a good older sibling?  Cooper’s paintings create a warmth without feeling cloying.  He especially excels at depicting body language in his double spreads.  Just look at the first spread of Jackson worrying and looking pensive–we see him from the side, laying down but a bit contorted, his eyes closed as if thinking deeply, his hand on his chin.  His soon-to-be-stepsister’s pink bike pops off the page.  Throughout the book Cooper uses perspective in a striking fashion; he knows exactly where to place the characters for maximum effect.  What’s especially beautiful about the story is how it celebrates empathy.

Town Is by the Sea, illustrated by Sydney Smith, written by Joanne Schwartz, published by Groundwood Books, ISBN:  978-1554988716. The picture book as cinema. With his ink and watercolor (with a bit of gouache) illustrations, Smith transports the reader to a Canadian mining town where a boy goes through his day while his father toils in an underground mine.  Throughout Smith gives you evocative double page spreads that give you widescreen views of the interior of the boy’s house, the landscape as the father walks to work, and, most claustrophobically, the view underground as the workers labor (the earth seems to be crushing their hunched bodies).  He also breaks the pages down into smaller frames at times, and this helps convey movement as the lad and his pal play on swings, for example.  Readers cannot help but notice the difference between the boy’s joy and freedom in the open air and the oppressive nature of his dad’s occupation.  Joanne Schwartz’s beautiful, direct (and never cloying) text (the boy narrates) carries you through the little moments of the child’s day, and this brings a kid-friendly quality to the book that a modern child can appreciate.

The Way Home in the Night, illustrated and written by Akiko Miyakoshi, published by Kids Can Press, ISBN:  978-1-77138-663-0.  Originally published in Japan in 2015, this moody, beautiful import shows an anthropomorphic rabbit family walking home at night.  Although I find this cozy and comforting overall, I have to admit I find its surreal dream-like quality a bit creepy on another level.  There’s something Lynchian about the imagery (in fact the rabbits remind me of the strange human-sized bunnies in Lynch’s Inland Empire) with the rather dead-eyed toddler rabbit (being carried by mom at first, and then later a father who joins them on their nocturnal stroll) looking in windows at other animals engaging in mundane activities that somehow seem mysterious and otherworldly in Miyakoshi’s hands.  I mean, I bet you can read this in a sinister voice and end up with eerie story perfect for a scary story time.  Or read it in a comforting voice and lull a little one to sleep.  The expert, panoramic illustrations rendered in pencil, charcoal, and acrylic gouache masterfully give us a shadowy night both serene and spooky.

When’s My Birthday?, illustrated by Christian Robinson, written by Julie Fogliano, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626722934. Wow, Fogliano’s text bops along with great excitement, making you wish that your birthday could be every single day of the year. The glorious refrain: “when’s my birthday?/where’s my birthday?/how many days until/my birthday?” is wildly catchy, getting the ole heartbeat racing. And she doesn’t let up for a moment, we turn the page and we read “will my birthday be on tuesday?/will my birthday be tomorrow?/will my birthday be in winter?” and find our bodies dancing along with the bouncy words. All the while Christian Robinson’s adorably witty illustrations join in the fun, filling each spread with child-like wonder and warmth

 

Where’s Rodney?, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, written by Carmen Bogan, published by Dream On Books and Yosemite Conservatory, ISBN: 978-1930238732. Artist Floyd Cooper is on a roll. Earlier this year he gave us the beautiful family story The Ring Bearer (reviewed on this blog here). Where’s Rodney?, a terrific celebration of being a child experiencing the wonder and glory of the outdoors, more specifically the breathtaking national park Yosemite. Author Carmen Bogan’s lively story introduces Rodney, an instantly likable kid who fidgets a bit in class, all the while eyeing what’s going on outside the window. When we arrive at Yosemite, yowsah! it’s a marvel. Cooper gives us a series of spreads showing Rodney’s delight in being outside. A double page spread showing him from afar, standing on a high rock, is a beaut. Then with a flip of the page we see reclining in a mountain’s crevice. Another great juxtaposition is the spread that shows Rodney looking like a giant as he investigates an anthill on the verso, and tiny as he stands at the base of a tree on the recto. Bogan’s series of opposites (“He was louder./He was quieter./He was faster./He was slower”) keeps the action moving at an exciting pace, and leading up to a beautiful moment with Rodney standing with his hands outstretched and a drop of rain on his forehead  and the words “Rodney was outside–more outside than he had ever been before.”

Wolf in the Snow, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, Feiwel & Friends,  978-1250076366.  First of all let me say I love wolves.  So any book that gives me a great wolf story rises to the top of my “favorites” pile.  This poignant, near wordless tale depicts the bond that quickly develops between a brave young girl wearing a Little Red Riding Hood style jacket and a scared wolf cub separated from its pack on a cold, snowy day.  Cordell’s work is always a joy, but here he does something brand new with his pen and ink with watercolor art, and the result is a book that gives the reader goosebumps.  Cordell serves up two linked storylines that merge as we cut back and forth between the huffing, shivering girl walking home from school and the little wolf who falls increasingly behind its elders.  When the two characters meet on an unforgettable series of spreads, we see a bond form.  And yet, we don’t get a cutesy revelation that the wolf wants to hang with humans.  The reader knows, and the girl knows that she must reunite the frightened animal with its pack, and a real sense of urgency develops.  Cordell gives the work the feel of a timeless fable as the kid saves the creature from a variety of dangers, and is then rewarded later by the wolves who come to her aid.  His masterful use of double page spreads deepens the tension of the unfolding events.

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Picture book of the day: La Princesa and the Pea serves up a fresh, funny retelling

La Princesa and the Pea, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, written by Susan Middleton Elya, published by G.P. Putnam & Son’s, ISBN: 978-0399251566.

Sometimes an illustrator and author can take a classic tale and make it feel fresh and brand new. By taking The Princess and the Pea and giving it what the book jacket calls a “Latino twist,” the gifted artist Martinez-Neal and writer Elya (her words have a spring in their step) bring a sense of playful joy to the tale of a prince who wants to marry a young woman of whom his mother does not approve. Elya laces the bilingual text with Spanish words (a helpful glossary appears at the book’s start). The story zips from one plot point to the next, with Elya serving up some dramatic tension but also wrapping the reader with a warm but never cloying “it’ll be okay” sense of humor that comforts. Martinez-Neal’s delightful art, created with acrylics, colored pencils, and graphite on handmade textured paper, gives us a compelling cast of human (and in scene-stealing supporting roles, animal) characters who make us giggle with their expressions (the queen’s grumpiness is hilarious, especially when she has an equally grumpy cat sitting on her head). The scene with the princess lying on a pile of colorful mattresses is a sly wonder to behold. Many retellings of folk tales and fairy tales hit shelves every year; this is one of the very best.

Picture book of the day: the bittersweet meditative nature of In the Middle of Fall

 

In the Middle of Fall, illustrated by Laura Dronzek, written by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062573124.

Once upon a time when autumn was my favorite season I shared my enthusiasm for fall with my friend’s wife. She morosely said, “yes, it’s beautiful but it also means everything is dying.” She then sipped her tea and we awkwardly sat there. Only for a few moments before we switched the topic to something more fun. Since then I have become more of a spring and summer person. I like the warmth, the heat. In the Middle of Fall (a companion to the lovely and playful When Spring Comes) helped rekindle those feelings I had for autumn as a kid. But it also touches on the bittersweet nature of the season: yes, it’s a joy to see the leaves change color, the squirrels search for nuts, to leap into leaf piles, and the pumpkins and apples emerge in their splendor, but still there is a sense of melancholy to it all. Droznek’s brown-heavy acrylic paintings, beautifully presented in large double spreads (great design, great dimensions used for the book), do an excellent job capturing the feel and look of fall. The thrill of seeing leaves cascade through the air is especially eye-catching. And I love the squirrel that pops up throughout: sitting on a swing, cradling a yummy apple–it’s not a cute cartoony squirrel, it looks realistic but in a sort of dreamy child-friendly way. Kevin Henkes’ spare, poetic text effectively asks the reader to sit back and remember all the colors and joys of autumn because soon all will be gray and the snow will fall. No, too soon, no winter! Not yet! Yes, even though I have these dreams of an endless summer, the book still makes me feel cozy and accepting of seasonal change. Like the little child smiling on one spread, looking at the reader as leaves fall around them, you feel comforted. Henkes and Dronzek prove once again with this book that they are two of the best children’s book creators at conveying meditative inner-thoughts, asking young folks to pause and reflect. Not a bad thing in this rat-a-tat age.

 

Picture book of the day: Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut is thrilling, alive, and new

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, illustrated by Gordon C. James, written by Derrick Barnes, published by Bolden (A Denene Millner Book/An Agate Imprint), ISBN: 978-1572842243. Release date: October 10, 2017.

Some books feel like instant classics the moment you read them. Some books offer such joy they give you a lift. Some books feel thrilling, alive, and new. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut is that kind of book, a burst of energy that makes you so happy it exists. Author Derrick Barnes writes in an afterword that he wanted to capture the experience of black and brown boys visiting barber shops, receiving amazing haircuts, and leaving with heads held high and with elevated self-esteem. His witty, vibrant prose certainly excels at sharing what a trip to “the shop” feels like, with its second person narration and thrilling sense of urgency. Barnes writes that “you came in as a lump of clay/a blank canvas, a stab of marble” and that the barber is an artist who will treat you like royalty, draping you with a cape, turning you into a Dark Caesar. This is motivational and inspirational writing at its very best, designed to appeal to young guys by putting things in terms that they understand. Barnes avoids sappiness by throwing in funny lines about how you, after getting your fresh cut, become such a star people are “going to have to wear shades/when they look up to catch your shine.”

And I love Gordon C. James’ art in this book. It matches the exuberance, warmth and wit of Barnes’ text while (save one surreal moment of a boy’s head becoming the aforementioned cosmic star) keeping things real. The expression on the boy’s face on the very first page gets us ready for the title’s playfulness: a boy stands with his held up high, smile on his face, slyly giving the reader a sideways glance. This is followed by a more contemplative double spread as the kid walks to the barber chair where the genius barber waits with the royal cape. A flip of the page gives you two images of the boy achieving great things with his new cut, holding achievement ribbons on one side, and (mentioned before) literally becoming a superstar in the cosmos on the other. Then Barnes and James broaden the experience by giving us moments inside the shop, with other customers (grown men) getting cuts of their own. All the while, Barnes’ words compel, and James’ inventive art serves up memorable image after memorable image. The visit results in a fab fresh cut for the boy, with the shop’s other guests wanting to give his new look a standing o. At the very end, as the boy leaves the shop, more “magnificent” and “flawless” (“like royalty”) than before, we have to flip the book so it is vertical. This is extremely effective when delivering the book’s empowering message. The boy appears to be larger than life, brimming with confidence and life. “Hello, world…” Simply one of the year’s best, about a specific cultural experience, but universal to the max.

Picture book of the day: experiencing the joys of nature (and perspective) in Where’s Rodney?

Where’s Rodney?, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, written by Carmen Bogan, published by Dream On Books and Yosemite Conservatory, ISBN: 978-1930238732.

Artist Floyd Cooper is on a roll. Earlier this year he gave us the beautiful family story The Ring Bearer (reviewed on this blog here). And now there is Where’s Rodney?, a terrific celebration of being a child experiencing the wonder and glory of the outdoors, more specifically the breathtaking national park Yosemite. Author Carmen Bogan’s lively story introduces Rodney, an instantly likable kid who fidgets a bit in class, all the while eyeing what’s going on outside the window. When we first see him, Cooper shows him from behind as he leans up to the window watching a blackbird. His left foot rises off the floor, indicating that this is a boy constantly in motion.

After his teacher, Miss Garcia, tells him and his classmates that they will be heading to a park, Rodney scoffs, thinking they are merely traveling to the humble little park near his house. Little does he know they will be heading to a massive jawdropper of a natural wonder! Cooper’s use of perspective in this book quietly astounds. He knows where to place Rodney on the page for maximum effect. As Rodney travels on the bus to the park, we feel as if we are sitting next to him as he looks out the window. So far everything has felt a little confining, so when we arrive at Yosemite, yowsah! it’s a marvel. Cooper gives us a series of spreads showing Rodney’s delight in being outside. A double page spread showing him from afar, standing on a high rock, is a beaut. Then with a flip of the page we see reclining in a mountain’s crevice. Another great juxtaposition is the spread that shows Rodney looking like a giant as he investigates an anthill on the verso, and tiny as he stands at the base of a tree on the recto. Bogan’s series of opposites (“He was louder./He was quieter./He was faster./He was slower”) keeps the action moving at an exciting pace, and leading up to a beautiful moment with Rodney standing with his hands outstretched and a drop of rain on his forehead  and the words “Rodney was outside–more outside than he had ever been before.” I am hoping this beautiful book doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of all the hot fall releases. It’s a joyous celebration of nature and childhood wonder.

Picture book of the day: When’s My Birthday? has a great beat and I can dance to it

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When’s My Birthday?, illustrated by Christian Robinson, written by Julie Fogliano, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626722934.

A co-worker of mine enthusiastically read this to me as soon as the book arrived, and what I noticed at first is the beat. Wow, Fogliano’s text bops along with great excitement, making you wish that your birthday could be every single day of the year. The glorious refrain: “when’s my birthday?/where’s my birthday?/how many days until/my birthday?” is wildly catchy, getting the ole heartbeat racing. And she doesn’t let up for a moment, we turn the page and we read “will my birthday be on tuesday?/will my birthday be tomorrow?/will my birthday be in winter?” and find our bodies dancing along with the bouncy words. All the while Christian Robinson’s adorably witty illustrations join in the fun, filling each spread with child-like wonder and warmth. A smiling butterfly wears a birthday hat, a girl unwraps a present that’s several times larger than her (love the string that’s part of the collage), a child climbs a ladder to point at the six candles on a ginormous birthday cake. You practically want to join in a conga line during the part when the narrator says “and you’re invited to my birthday/and she’s invited to my birthday/and he’s invited to my birthday/and you and you and you” (Robinson on this spread gives us a giraffe and a sloth with birthday hats, and a birthday hat on a goldfish bowl). The action only slows down for one hilarious moment as the narrator, anticipating the birthday that’s about to happen tomorrow, starts falling to sleep while speaking, resulting in them saying “blurfday” instead of “birthday” before the snoring begins. And then we’re up, wide awake again, and flip out because TODAY IS THE BIG DAY! Artfully done, with cool book design (credited to Kristie Radwilowicz), with dimensions that remind one of a birthday candle (without a wick of course), this is pure picture book goodness. LET’S PARTY!

Picture book of the day: the autobiographical dream world of Robinson

Robinson, illustrated and written by Peter Sís, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-0545731669. Release date: September 26, 2017 (Advance Reader’s Copy reviewed).

According to the back matter, Peter Sís won a costume contest as a child after his artistically talented mother crafted him a nifty Robinson Crusoe outfit. And an old photo of him accompanies this personal anecdote. The costume is both a marvel and amusing. He admits that although his Crusoe threads look cool, they made him feel itchy and uncomfortable. And worse still, his classmates laughed at him. Later, when he became ill, he had a fever dream of going off solo to live on an island. The Caldecott Honor winning Sís uses this childhood story as a springboard for the visually arresting Robinson, done in his usual dynamic style, with large cinematic, often swirling spreads. He gives us a lot of overhead shots of the action. His use of borders (that offer more visual information) and graphic novel style frames are masterful. When the boy Peter feels humiliated at the costume party and retreats to bed, we enter his dream world. The drawings of the island in all its glory are thrilling, creating a vivid sense of place. He throws in moments of whimsy (a meal at a table with wild animals). But then loneliness sets in (the way it does for another boy who heads off to an imaginary island, Max in Where the Wild Things Are), and Peter wishes to see his friends again. They appear, apologize, and it all comes to a cheerful end, with the promise of new adventures for the reconciled pals. This beautifully rendered and personal book looks and feels like no other picture book this year. However, it would team up nicely with other recent and/or upcoming picture books set at sea: Mighty Moby, The Only Fish in the Sea, The Boy and the Whale, and The Antlered Ship.