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.

Picture books of the day: characters go wild in The Bear in My Family and Lone Wolf

The Bear in My Family, illustrated and written by Maya Tatsukawa, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0525555827, to be released: March 10, 2020, ARC reviewed.

Lone Wolf, illustrated and written by Sarah Kurpiel, published by Greenwillow Books (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062943828, to be released: May 12, 2020, ARC reviewed.

Thanks to working with Betsy Bird, who knows that with ARCs sharing time is caring time, I see many advance reader copies of upcoming picture books. I look them over for ordering purposes and consider them for future storytimes (and blog posts such as this). Sometimes I come across picture books that give me that storytime tingle, that feeling of “yes, this will captivate the young ones.” I’m drawn to titles that invite audience participation–roars, growls, and howls are most welcome. They have compelling, fun illustrations that will show beautifully across a crowded room, and, just as importantly, a story arc that brings the action to a satisfying close.

I cannot wait to read Maya Tatsukawa’s The Bear in My Family and Sarah Kurpiel’s Lone Wolf to my groups. Both have lovable protagonists who endure the highs and lows of experiencing what it feels like to live with (and/or as) a fierce animal. Wild rumpuses can be joyful…but still a bit, oh, startling.

“I live with a bear,” the child at the center of The Bear in My Family says at the story’s start. The kid (I love that we see a bee drawing on the child’s shirt–bears and bees have a unique relationship after all) looks slightly dazed as they face us. The flip of the page and readers discover that the bear lives next door. The kid has a “no bears” sign on the door while the unseen bear has a “Bee Ware” sign on their’s. 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 surprise and conclusion. Let’s just say that they bring extra layers of fun to the account. I cannot wait to read the exchanges between bear and child. Dust off your best gravelly voice.

I adore huskies (and wolves) so the cover of Lone Wolf instantly grabbed my attention. A husky dog peeking facing us. This charmer introduces readers to the lovable Maple, a canine many mistake or call “Wolf!” Maple’s owners find themselves often explaining the differences between wolves and huskies (the talented Sarah Kurpiel uses her warm digital art to show them on a helpful double page spread). Still, Maple cannot help but revel in her very wolf-i-ness, and notice how she differs from other dogs. One fun moment shows her hunting life a wolf (she has captured a toy dinosaur), howling to have a box of dog biscuits opened, and digging up the family’s flower garden. She decides that yes, she must go live among the wolves. Of course things go awry. Kurpiel’s crisp text and often inventive art beautifully capture Maple’s emotional journey. She finds her way home. Kids will cheer.

Picture books of the day: four fascinating looks at groundbreaking people

I look at several picture book biographies in any given year, and learn so much about a variety of cool people as a result. Here are four recent and/or upcoming titles that jumped out at me. They all contain striking illustrations and dynamic writing and teach readers about someone who has made an impact.

Thanks to these books I have met a young African-American child who became a civil rights hero when she took a historical ride on a merry-go-round. Learned about a 108-year-old Sikh man who became the oldest person ever to run a marathon. Admired the brave efforts of a Syrian ambulance driver dedicating his life to helping the people and animals in a war zone. And marveled at the way a slave (born near Greece 2,500) created many beloved fables that still engage and instruct today. Writing about such complex issues in such a concise manner that will grab young reader’s attention takes skill and talent. All five books are first-rate.

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, to be released: April 14, 2020, ARC reviewed.

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. Using black ink on watercolor paper (the art was then scanned and colored using Adobe Photoshop), illustrator Shimizu effectively shows the city before and after the war starts: a shot of Alaa enjoying his once peaceful surroundings followed by images of despair and destruction. The book does not flinch from or water down the tragedy. The panoramic double page spreads capture the enormity of the situation, with one cat-packed scene especially breathtaking.

The Fabled Life of Aesop, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Ian Lendler, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN: 978-1328585523, to be released: March 10, 2020.

This beautifully designed account whisks readers back 2,500 years to introduce Aesop, the slave who, and I’m quoting the book jacket because I like this concise description, “uses his gift of storytelling to liberate himself from captivity.” Lendler says right up front that not a lot is known about Aesop–slaves’ lives often went undocumented. But he does his best to reveal what he knows, expertly weaving in a bunch of Aesop’s fables to deepen the story. The two time Caldecott Honor winning illustrator Zagarenski outdoes herself with her watercolors on watercolor paper with minor mixed media collage. I love how she uses a different artistic approaches for the scenes detailing Aesop’s life and the more fanciful depictions of the fables themselves. She slips some sly whimsical humor into her paintings of the stories (vultures with forks, for example).

Fauja Singh Keeps Going, illustrated by Baljinder Kaur, written by Simran Jeet Singh, foreward by Fauja Singh, published by Kokila, ISBN: 978-0525555094, to be released: August 25, 2020, ARC reviewed.

This book doesn’t come out until late summer but I love it so much I want to talk about it now. I took up running just a few years ago (in my late ’40s) so I find this look at the rather incredible Fauja Singh especially inspirational. Singh didn’t start running marathons until he was in his 80s! And he became the first person over the age of 100 to complete a long-distance race. Not bad for a man who had trouble walking as a child. This beautiful story receives a top-notch treatment from writer Simran Jeet Singh, who laces his text with heart and empathy, and Baljinder Kauer, who created the illustrations digitally using hand drawings and collage pieces, brings tenderness to her warm, fluid art. The backmatter includes a photo of Fauja Singh at the age of 108. I’m in awe of this guy.

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, currently available.

Unlike the others in this post, A Ride to Remember is a 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 book does a great job showing how unjust and unfair segregation was, and how protests and social activism effectively changed things. I love the way this book begins. The simple sentence “I love carousels” brings young readers in right away, and the description of carousels glimmers with poetic beauty: “They  start together. They finish together, too. Nobody is first and nobody is last. Everyone is equal when you ride a carousel.” 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. Every detail is perfect and evocative–I love how he makes the carousel horses seem magical, and he catches that beautiful moment when Sharon gets to take that ride. The backmatter includes information about the now-closed park, where the carousel resides today, and terrific photographs of Langley then and now.

Picture book of the day: Honeybee by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann is a buzz-worthy masterpiece

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. The vivid and exceptional non-fiction account Honeybee chronicles the short yet eventful life of one “Apis Mellifera” and tucks the spectator into the very center of the insect’s home. Apis and the other bees emerge from the pages as larger than life beings–the giant dimensions of this book allow budding apiarists (or those simply curious about the insect) to fully appreciate them. Rohmann’s approach is pure cinema: long shots, up close shots (at one point readers stand eye to eye with the lead bee). Just look at the pre-credit (pre-title page) sequence. In the first two moments, Apis emerges from her solitary cell–seemingly alone. And then Rohmann pulls back to show readers the full picture (several bees surround her). You can practically hear the buzzing.

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: emerging, chewing “through the wax cap of her solitary cell” and then eating pollen, cleaning the hive’s nursery, inspecting “the grub-like larvae” and so on. All the while Fleming teases the reader with the idea that soon this industrious bee will take flight. She spends each spread describing what Apis must do next and then asks is she ready for flying? Nope, not yet. This is non-fiction picture book writing at its very best–alive with details, bouncy and energetic, perfect for storytimes.

When the honeybee finally does take flight, the book offers a thrilling, panoramic vision, going even more widescreen than before, with a fold out page that whisks us out of the hive and into a field perfect for honeybees such as our Apis. I love the fourth wall breaking side glance she gives the reader as she approaches a flower. The book of course ends with the inevitable, a moment of sadness. Bees don’t live very long after all. Yet there is hope; the cycle of life continues (and will hopefully continue–we need honeybees).

The back matter is exceptional. A striking and informative anatomical drawing of the honeybee. Facts about bees. Honeybee of course would make a great double feature with their previous effort, the dynamic Sibert Honor winning Giant Squid. Honeybee is a must for nature fans and for those who love terrific art and vibrant writing. It’s a masterpiece.