Picture book of the day: The Boy and the Whale serves up compassion and adventure

The Boy and the Whale, illustrated and written by Mordicai Gerstein, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN 978-1626725058, release date: November 21, 2017 (review of the Advance Reader’s Edition).

When I briefly met Mordicai Gerstein, I told him “I’m happy that The Man Who Walked Between the Towers won the Caldecott, and he responded with a laugh, “So am I.” He said it with such a jovial tone and we both laughed. 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. Although his father instructs him not to do anything about the matter, the kid decides that he must try his best to save the struggling animal. 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. There is a thrilling moment when, after a spread conveying silence after a good deed has been done, the whale explodes out of the water and spins in the air. The use of perspective is incredible in this spread; it’s a faraway shot showing  the magnitude of the whale dwarfing the boy standing on the boat. Although we cannot see his face, we can tell from his body language (he bravely stands and watches the glorious sight) that he is awestruck.  So are we. The Boy and the Whale then ends with a moment of hope between father and son. 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.

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Picture book of the day: going on a commute with Professional Crocodile

Professional Crocodile, illustrated by Mariachiara Di Giorgio, written by Giovanna Zoboli, published by Chronicle, ISBN:  978-1452165066.  This hilarious nearly wordless picture book import from Italy has a twist ending so surprising I could not stop laughing. I will not spoil this surprise, but will attempt to describe what makes this delightful creation work. Presented in a graphic novel format and possessing longish dimensions perfect for a book about crocodiles, this title shows an anthropomorphized crocodile rising from bed in the morning and going through his daily ritual of picking a tie for work, enjoying a quick breakfast, and heading out for the commute. Di Giorgio’s humorous yet gorgeous art is packed with amusing details (for example, one funny sequence shows the crocodile sharing an awkward elevator ride with a shy stranger) as the protagonist makes his way across a crowded cityscape. He peeks in stores, gets soaked thanks to a careless driver driving through a curb-side puddle, and ends up smooshed on a packed subway train (adults will relate to this scenario). As he heads to his final destination, we feel as if we have walked a mile in his shoes. This is the kind of book that you can look at again and again and find new details to savor. It also emerges as a surprisingly indelible character study. Fans of Bernard Waber’s Lyle books will find another crocodile to cheer. Those who like funny books, wordless books, and/or picture books starring affable animal characters will love this book.

Picture book of the day: Creepy Pair of Underwear is a worthy sequel to a modern classic

Creepy Pair of Underwear!, illustrated by Peter Brown, written by Aaron Reynolds, published by Simon & Schuster, ISBN:  978-1442402980.

Peter Brown received a well-deserved 2013 Caldecott Honor for his wildly imaginative illustrations for Creepy Carrots!, in which he paid tribute to the shadowy images found in old horror films and Twilight Zone episodes.  He continues this dynamic approach in the absolutely terrific sequel Creepy Pair of Underwear!.  I can happily report that the title more than lives up to its predecessor’s witty, silly greatness.  Aaron Reynolds’ prose crackles with a delightful mock-intensity that begs the reader to read it in the most mock-scary deep voice they can muster.  Again Brown tips his hat to old-fashioned black and white films as his illustrations emulate camera angles:  POV shots over the characters or from behind, images surrounded by borders with rounded off corners.  Jasper Rabbit has returned, seemingly settled after his run-in with the horrifying carrots that made his life terrifying in the first book.  While shopping in a store he sees a “glorious” pair of creepy, comfy underwear that he must have NOW!  The underwear is green, with a Frankenstein face on front (and they look bizarrely hilarious when Jasper wears them).  Of course the underwear ends up making life absolutely scary for our hero:  glowing in the dark, shockingly returning when Jasper tries to dispose of them, and so on.  I can already imagine that is going to make a great audiobook.  I don’t want to spoil the ending but all I can say is it leads to a resolution that satisfies and makes sense.  Throw in a fun reference to the first book, and you have a sequel will delight Jasper Rabbit’s many fans.

Picture book of the day: finding happiness and hope on This Beautiful Day

This Beautiful Day, illustrated by Suzy Lee, written by Richard Jackson, published by Atheneum, ISBN:  978-1481441391.  At my library I will be running a mock-Caldecott program and I have been looking for possible candidates for discussion.  When I read This Beautiful Day the first time I perked up, saying to myself “here’s a contender.”  Then I looked at Suzy Lee’s bio and alas, I forgot that she does not qualify for Caldecott recognition because she was not born in and does not live in the United States (she resides in South Korea).  This wonderful book joins the Sydney Smith-illustrated Town Is by the Sea as one of the most distinguished Calde-notts of the year.  Now that I have yelled “NOOOOOOO” and fought off the urge to write to the Caldecott powers-that-be urging them to bend some rules, I will attempt to do Suzy Lee’s work here justice.

This Beautiful Day tells the simple story of three kids stuck inside on a gray, rainy day.  However, they don’t let the inclement weather bring them down.  One of them switches on a radio, music plays, and they start to dance.  The dancing leads to joyful stamping and stomping, first indoors and then outside where they march through puddles.  Waving their umbrellas with joy, they become even more euphoric when the rain stops and the sun shines.  Their umbrellas float away through the air, towards the tree, and the kids, joined by friends, start defying gravity.  What is striking about the book is Lee’s use of color (her illustrations are rendered in pencil and acrylics and digitally manipulated).  The first spreads only have shades of gray as we see the children moping (the backgrounds are spare).  When the radio is turned on, we see a hint of blue.  Then as the music spreads, more blue appears.  After they go outside, more color fills the page, becoming more prominent as the sun returns.  Lee’s figures are remarkably fluid and expressive; she excels at conveying body movement.  All the while, Richard Jackson’s spare yet energetic text adds an extra layer of warmth to the title.

This Beautiful Day emerges as one of the most hopeful books of the year, showing kids rising above a sad situation and embracing joy and community and a sense of fun.

Picture book of the day: the disorienting surprises of Mighty Moby

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.  All the while DaCosta’s energetic prose captures the terror and awe of this showdown.  And then comes the surprise.  Again, it’s a surprise I have seen in several other books, but here the surprise feels so fresh and new as if it had never been done in any previous title.  The surprise is also a genre-flipper:  we think we have been reading an adventure story but instead, we have been reading something else entirely.  Just brilliant.

Picture book of the day: the joy of hearing an audience yell Boo! in perfect unison

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 beauty of the design starts on the cover with a mouse appearing under the two “O”s in the word BOO cut out in the shape of eyes.  Flip open the book and we see that the eyeballs belong to a crocodile about to chomp on the mouse.  When addressing the reader, each animal starts off with a greeting with an amplified, larger font, and in a nice touch, Newman changes the font for each character.  To say this works in large story times is an understatement:  the illustrations show beautifully across the room.  Kids laugh, scream, and adore the surprise ending.  It will forever be a part of my regular story hour rotation.

The Great Ones Volume 1: R. Gregory Christie–the illustrator as character actor

I am proud to introduce the first in a series of ongoing posts about contemporary children’s book illustrators I admire.  These humble capsules will try to zero in on one thing about what makes this artist a truly special creator of children’s books.  I cannot think of a cooler person to start with than R. Gregory Christie who has given the world over 50 acclaimed picture books over the past 20 or so years.  Christie has won 5 Coretta Scott Illustrator Honor awards (The Palm of My Heart, Only Passing Through, Brothers in Hope, The Book Itch and Freedom in Congo Square), a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (Bad News for Outlaws), a NAACP Image Award, is a three-time winner of the New York Times’ 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the Year (Only Passing Through, Stars in the Darkness, Freedom in Congo Square), a 2017 Caldecott Honor Award (Freedom in Congo Square), among other honors.  To top it all off, he’s one of the nicest people I have ever met.

Recently I had the chance to hear Mr. Christie speak on a panel and one of his comments really stayed with me.  He says that he views himself as a “character actor” style illustrator who bends his art to match the tone of each book.  I went back and looked at some of his work with this in mind and it really makes sense.  He is a brilliant interpreter of an author’s words, capturing the mood that the writer creates.  For a mind-blowing comparison just look at Bad News for Outlaws:  The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal (2009, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, published by Carolrhoda), Sugar Hill:  Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood (2014, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, published by Albert Whitman & Company), The Book Itch:  Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (2015, written by Nelson, published by Carolrhoda), and Freedom in Congo Square (2016, written by Weatherford, published by little bee).

Christie’s work in Freedom in Congo Square, about slaves who endure hard labor during the week and have only one afternoon of joy playing music in New Orleans’ Congo Square, calls to mind the power of great folk art.  We don’t see the features on the slaves’ faces.  Their bodies are bent at painful, difficult angles while working, but are then curved with graceful release when enjoying the music.  Meanwhile, in The Book Itch, about Lewis Henri Michaux and the creation of the National Memorial African Bookstore, Christie creates a real sense of place, making the reader feel as if they are a customer in the famous bookstore.  We see the expressions on the people’s faces, although some of the work is abstract.  Christie serves up beautiful portraits of such historical figures as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.  The Book Itch has a serious tone, especially when the people grieve after Malcolm X’s murder, and Christie’s work doesn’t shy away from this sadness.  What emerges, thanks also to Nelson’s evocative text, is an indelible study of how this book store changed lives.

Compare the serene art in The Book Itch to the bouncy spreads found in the almost giddy Sugar Hill.  Weatherford’s finger-snapping rhymes introduce the youngest of readers to the celebrated Harlem neighborhood where legendary figures as Thurgood Marshall and Lena Horne hung out while children played stickball on the street.  The warm wink on the book’s cover tells you “oh, this will be fun” and Christie’s pastel illustrations create a captivating warmth.  Meanwhile, on the cover for Bad News for Outlaws, a picture book biography about respected Old West lawman African-American Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, Reeves meets your eyes directly–looking dignified and very serious.  Nelson starts the account with a bang (quite literally) showing Reeves in action, and Christie gives us scenes straight out of a movie, with the reader at one point staring down the barrel of Reeves’ gun.  He excels at capturing the landscape and vistas of the Old West.  But mostly what impresses is how Christie depicts Bass’ brave, no-nonsense personality.

R. Gregory Christie is always trying something new in his work.  Although of course you can see similarities in how he depicts body movement and human figures, he flexes his style and this helps each title take on a distinct visual world all its own.